Italy’s Soft Spot For Autocracies

Autocratization tendencies inside and surrounding the EU strongly affect its decisions and democracy. How is Italy responding?

Depiction of a Lego Autocratization Process
Depiction of a Lego dictator. Photo: Via Tsuji, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr.

Democratic backsliding has been prevalent in and around Europe, over the past several years. The number of governments developing an autocratization process, has been rapidly growing since 2000. They can’t be considered real autocracies as long as elections continue to be held without any fraud and the opposition is given a chance to win. As a result, European leaders agreed in 2020 to create a new mechanism linking allotments of union funds to EU member states with the countries’ maintained respect for the rule of law. Now more than ever the autocratization of regimes inside and around Europe is evident and pose a threat for the future of European foreign policy. If the rule of law fails, then what is Europe’s role now? How can the economy not be affected by these changes? These are big questions that involve many factors and we have no audacity to try to answer them, however we can try to paint a picture of the current situation.

No democracy equals no financial support. However, this relationship is lacking as the EU is providing financial support to governments such as Egypt, Morocco, Rwanda and Vietnam, where the ultimate goal is financial assistance and not democracy. New engagement with various partners is to be expected, but it goes without saying that Europe has no interest in directly funding authoritarian-leaning governments. There are more and more humanitarian crisis emerging every day, and after the Ukrainian war there are more than ever. Direct financial support to governments guilty of human rights abuses should not be an option.

Even inside Europe itself we have seen autocratization boosts, see the case of Hungary and Poland: democratic institutions exist and are the main way to gain power, but the regime uses its extensive control over state structures to curb the opposition’s electoral success. This trend has been limited and recognized by Europe, however it shows an alarming weakness in Europe’s respect for the rule of law. Inspired by the example of neighboring countries such as Russia, China, Singapore or Turkey, we may be in the presence of an attractive ideological alternative to liberal democracy that may jeopardize the whole European project, let alone the consequences on the normative power of Europe. For awhile now analysts have been talking about the declining role of Western Europe and the rise of populism, which leads to the question — should we prevent a pattern of authoritarian backsliding in many regions such as the Western areas?

Europe finds itself in a tight corner: founded on confidence in globalization, economic neoliberalism and an appealing international market. The numerous bilateral and multilateral agreements signed with neighboring countries are in fact justly instruments to influence the domestic policies of partner countries, encouraging them to respect democratic principles as sine qua non to cooperate with the EU. If this is the case, Europe may suspend the application of the Treaty and apply the political conditionality we have mentioned before.

But when will Europe decide to stop financing other countries? The elements through which Europe decides when to act with conditionality have shifted throughout the years, sometimes also depending on economic and diplomatic reasons. Europe can now either contain or strongly answer to these tendencies and the ones that may arise from previous models, finding itself in front of a growing set of challenges to European cohesion and stability. Discredited Democratic values put forth a favorable ground for new authoritarian pressures. All in all it seems that the final goal of Russia, as well as China, is to undermine democratic norms and weaken European cohesion. A goal to which Europe hasn’t formed a counter-strategy. Maybe the autocratization processes in — and outside — Europe can’t be slowed down, however Europe still needs to develop new and efficient instruments to close the vulnerabilities inside their own political systems and economies.

In foreign policy, Europe has always leaned towards cooperation and democracy, now a strong set of policies has to be put in place. Financial help to authoritarian states should be supervised and come with strings attached, otherwise Europe could be burdened with new autocratization leads that could jeopardize it as a whole. On the other hand, current historical momentum calls for new models that go beyond the competition and confrontation between neoliberalism and autocracy.

Russian government: an autocratization process that fits into a larger project

One of the autocratic countries on which Europe has recently proved to be the most dependent is Russia. In the Russian government the main actor in the autocratization process is undoubtedly the media and its narrative: during the past twenty years, Putin has portrayed Russia as a victim of an expansionist Western agenda, even more after the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine in 2014, which in the eyes of the Russian people was painted as the flagship promise broken by the West. Russia sees European democracy, prosperity, and security as inherently aimed at weakening Russia. The system on which the whole state machine lays its foundations is perfect, in the sense that it is self-sufficient and sustainable — Moscow-centered. The autocratization process goes hand in hand with the isolation process, a consistent and long-running project.

Restricting the activity of independent media and civil society organizations is especially important for guaranteeing the life of the regime, for which Russia is the perfect illustration. Controlling the media permits the production of ideological propaganda and limits the opposition, targeting it constantly. Laws harm independent media and journalists face jail. The most important element in the Russian project is closing its borders to neighbors and avoiding western influences and rebellions, which also means cutting funding from foreign sources as much as possible to track every ‘threat to national security’. Apart from all the obvious geographical and historical reasons, one should remember that one of the many weak spots today is the demographic challenge: since the communist bloc, the population fell and in 2020 it reached 144.1 million, compared to 329.4 million in the United States. Since the invasion of Ukraine in February, brain drain has accelerated, exacerbating population decline. The government is aware of it, especially considering that in the long run the absence of young new graduates will weaken the country’s ability to innovate and stay ahead of the times. On the other hand, this shrinking of the population leaves the country with fewer and older people. This could make it easier for the government to impose economic restrictions, civic limitations, spread its propaganda against the west as well as continue its autocratization process. Given the historical preconditions of the Russian state, we might expect an even tighter armor around Russia with serious economic and social repercussions.

As Sergej Sumlenny, head of Heinrich Böll Foundation in Kiev, said many years before the most recent aggression to Ukraine, the various mechanisms of controlling society had been systematically built up for years in Russia and the propaganda system is perfectly oiled. As Russian academic V.B.Kuvaldin stated, the present regime is “a peculiar combination of authoritarianism, oligarchy (with criminal shade)” and “the remains of the perestroika period’s democracy”. The state in which Russians lived and live today, from poverty to state repression, is just a small example of how far the autocratization process led by the elite can go. Europe’s answer to the latest aggression of Russia in Ukraine, so far, has been six rounds of sanctions but the situation does seem at an impasse. While Russians leave the country or raise public discontent, institutional performance is suffering the consequences.

Italy’s role with autocratic regimes: a country surviving day by day

By condemning the aggressive Russian technique since day one, the Italian government has been good with words but poor in actions. Other countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and Algeria are current beneficiaries of 200 billion from Europe to survive the corn crisis. These countries don’t follow democratic values, however they are receiving consistent volumes of funds from Europe to make ends meet. Italy also has its failings; a few days after the invasion in Ukraine a discussion started surrounding gas imports from Qatar, a country not so different from Russia in terms of human and civil rights. Qatar suddenly became an interesting source, so much that Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi Di Maio defined it as a “historic and reliable energy partner for Europe and Italy,” and said the Emirate would work to “strengthen the energy partnership with Italy.”

Qatar is not the only attractive country, there’s also Algeria and Azerbaijan for instance, countries that have strong economic ties with Italy and in which silencing, arrests and attacks against protesters, journalists, lawyers and students are a daily routine. In order to satisfy the level of welfare reached by our consumer society, Italy is forced to import raw materials from countries with lower manufacturing costs. In a State in which the minimum wage yet doesn’t exist and many young people can’t support themselves, it seems a huge paradox. The paradox of globalization is in fact settling the bill and Italy is set to choose its preference between the dependence on more autocracies or allocating huge investments, which might be unpopular in many people’s eyes.

Italy has chosen to abandon Russia, and thus not to indirectly finance the war by paying for gas supplies, however the same problem arises because the alternatives identified by the government will guarantee revenues for other authoritarian states to suppress internal protests. Precisely for this reason, Amnesty International has long called for clear constraints on the protection of human rights to be included in economic relations, a request that hasn’t yet been heard. Italy as well as other countries is defined by its shortages and dependences, with no foreseeable way out.

What can Italy do to minimize these risky new dependences while struggling with a financial crisis? The only current scenario involves an urgent approach, which includes the full exploitation of existing gas infrastructures that are currently underused. In the long run the structural solution to the problem only comes through renewables, efficiency and energy conservation, which requires large investments. Italians, according to a study carried out by YouGov in partnership with think tank Ecco, need a change to believe in the institutions, especially when talking about energy. The survey reveals citizens who are ready to do their part and are aware of the importance of individual actions to face the current situation, but who also know that politics and big businesses play the main role in the climate challenge, which is closely linked to the NRRP. Italian companies in fact might be ready for this switch to renewables if the State makes it doable: it is indeed essential to immediately unblock permits, which have been blocked for years by administrative procedures, as it usually happens in Italian bureaucracy, and to invest more.