The Booming Export of Authoritarianism

Ever more governments are reaching beyond their borders to silence their critics, according to a new Freedom House report.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , an intern at Foreign Policy.
Friends of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi hold posters bearing his picture.
Friends of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi hold posters bearing his picture.
Friends of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi hold posters bearing his picture as they attend an event marking the second-year anniversary of his assassination in front of the consulate of Saudi Arabia on Oct. 2, 2020. Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

An increasing number of governments around the world are reaching across borders in an attempt to harass and silence critics, according to a new report released today by the U.S.-based nonprofit Freedom House.

The group documented 735 incidents of governments physically targeting dissidents abroad using attempted assassination, assault, deportation, and rendition between 2014 and 2021. These extreme measures are likely only the tip of the iceberg; authoritarian regimes have increasingly used local proxies and cyberattacks in a bid to stifle dissent beyond their borders as new technologies have opened up a host of possibilities for what scholars term transnational repression.

“What we’re seeing in transnational repression is the export of authoritarianism,” said Yana Gorokhovskaia, a senior research analyst with Freedom House and one of the report’s authors. “It is the spreading of authoritarian practices beyond the borders of autocrats.”

An increasing number of governments around the world are reaching across borders in an attempt to harass and silence critics, according to a new report released today by the U.S.-based nonprofit Freedom House.

The group documented 735 incidents of governments physically targeting dissidents abroad using attempted assassination, assault, deportation, and rendition between 2014 and 2021. These extreme measures are likely only the tip of the iceberg; authoritarian regimes have increasingly used local proxies and cyberattacks in a bid to stifle dissent beyond their borders as new technologies have opened up a host of possibilities for what scholars term transnational repression.

“What we’re seeing in transnational repression is the export of authoritarianism,” said Yana Gorokhovskaia, a senior research analyst with Freedom House and one of the report’s authors. “It is the spreading of authoritarian practices beyond the borders of autocrats.”

Those in nondemocratic states are most at risk, as authoritarian regimes are increasingly working together to pursue and silence opponents or shore up their own geopolitical interests. In three-quarters of the cases documented by the report, both the origin country and the host country were authoritarian states. Turkey, which has long been regarded as a relative safe haven for Uyghur Muslims escaping persecution in China, has increasingly cracked down on those critical of Beijing as Ankara seeks to strengthen economic ties with China.

One of the most prominent instances of transnational repression in recent years is the suspected murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul. Despite early efforts by the Turkish government to investigate the killing, a Turkish court in April transferred the ongoing trial of 26 Saudi nationals accused of murdering the Washington Post columnist to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital. The move “reflected Erdogan’s desire to improve his historically poor relations with the Saudi leadership, particularly in light of Turkey’s worsening economic situation and its need for foreign investment,” the report notes.

Despite the risks of escaping one authoritarian state for another, dissidents are often left with little option but to flee to neighboring states due to highly restrictive visa and asylum rules in democratic states. “One of the things we want to highlight with the report is that often people flee where they can, where’s most accessible, but they continue to be at risk of transnational repression,” Gorokhovskaia said.

These tactics are being used by an increasing number of governments, with Belarus, Nigeria, Comoros, and Algeria employing these tactics for the first time last year. Amid a punishing government crackdown following mass street protests in 2020 against presidential elections widely thought to have been falsified, Belarus rose to become the single worst offender last year, accounting for 31 percent of the transnational cases in 2021. “Belarus for a really long time managed dissent inside the country by forcing people out,” Gorokhovskaia said. “But then something changed and the repression really spread from within the country, outward.”

In the most brazen incident, Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair passenger plane bound for Lithuania to land in Minsk, Belarus’s capital, by calling in a fake bomb threat to arrest blogger Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who were on board.

The term transnational repression was coined in 2016 by sociologist Dana Moss to describe attempts by authoritarian regimes and their loyalists to silence critics abroad. Although harassment and intimidation are mostly targeted toward diaspora activists and political exiles, family members can often get caught in the crossfire in what Moss describes as “proxy punishment” as regimes seek to harm, threaten, interrogate, or even kill the relatives of dissidents still living in their home countries. Uyghurs living in the United States have repeatedly accused the Chinese government of harassing and detaining their relatives in a bid to smother their activism in the United States.

Although the law enforcement and legal systems of democratic states offer better protections for exiled journalists, activists, and opposition politicians, they are not immune to efforts to silence them as foreign intelligence services employ new and audacious methods to pursue government critics in Europe and the United States. Russia has been linked to a string of attempted assassinations in Europe, including the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom in 2018. Russia accounts for almost one-third of all assassinations and attempted assassinations outside a country’s borders documented by the report.

In the United States, the Justice Department has indicted 19 people for engaging in efforts at transnational repression, with some accused of plotting abductions and assaults.

“This is not an us-and-them kind of problem,” Gorokhovskaia said. “This can impact democratic institutions in democratic countries. When China hires a private investigator to find dirt or maybe even organize an attack on a Chinese dissident who is running for office in the U.S., that has real consequences for U.S. democracy.”

Many countries and international institutions are still struggling with how to respond. Freedom House examined the repression prevention efforts of nine countries: Canada, Germany, South Africa, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

All are home to large diaspora populations and are popular destinations for vulnerable individuals in exile—those most often the targets of transnational repression by their home countries. Thailand, Turkey, and Ukraine in particular have large refugee populations and are often the first stops for people seeking asylum because of their lax entry requirements, Gorokhovskaia said. “They’re almost a sort of safe haven by default.”

But receiving countries can be perpetrators of transnational repression too. Thailand and Turkey were among the top perpetrators of transnational repression, and although many people seeking refuge can arrive there, few are able to stay. For example, prior to Russia’s invasion, Ukraine had been a receiving hub, particularly among those leaving former Soviet countries who were permitted to remain for 90 days without registering. But Ukraine’s asylum system was slow and bureaucratic—many were also required to surrender their passports and left without identification. “You can arrive and find immediate safety but maybe not long-term refuge,” Gorokhovskaia said.

One of the most well-documented forms of transnational repression is abuse of Interpol’s Red Notice system, which allows states to send out arrest notices worldwide. For many years, civil society activists have sought to raise the alarm that regimes are abusing the global police organization to track down and detain opponents. All 195 member countries—including regimes like Syria, which was readmitted in 2021—have access to an arrest hotline unavailable to the public. Leaders of draconian regimes thus collaborate to track down activists considered political enemies by their authoritarian counterparts who want their critics returned, Moss said.

The burden of fighting against transnational repression currently falls on the shoulders of those being targeted, the report found. But the diaspora communities where political exiles settle are already more vulnerable to suspicion and extraterritorial violence. And while an increasing number of governments are using the tools of transnational repression, it isn’t anything new.

“It’s just coming into academics and policymakers awareness,” Moss said. “Generations of folks and communities have just gritted their teeth and had to bear this on their own.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Mary Yang is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MaryRanYang

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