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All the King’s Games

In an era of democratic erosion, we must study the tactics that enable authoritarians like Vladimir Putin to stay in power. By understanding why some tyrants endure while others succumb to popular uprisings, we can design better laws and constitutions to ensure rulers cannot hold on to power against their people's will.

NEW YORK – A specter is haunting Russia – the specter of dissent. Anti-draft protests have broken out in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other Russian cities, large and small. Thousands of young men are fleeing the country. And more than 2,000 Russians have been arrested after protesting against President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to mobilize 300,000 reservists to fight his war against Ukraine.

It is too early to speculate about whether the current civil unrest will lead to Putin’s ouster. If he is indeed deposed, it would be a blessing for the people of Ukraine and for billions of people worldwide suffering the economic fallout of his war. But among the main beneficiaries would be ordinary Russians whose lives and prospects have been diminished under his corrupt, authoritarian regime.

Do Russians want to oust Putin and restore democracy? If you ask people familiar with Russia, they will most likely say that most of the population still supports him. I have my doubts. Tyrants always appear to have more support than they do until they are gone, because feigning support is a survival strategy. We saw this in Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt before both were overthrown in 2011. During the height of McCarthyism in the United States in the early 1950s, more people mimicked support for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s oppressive views than actually supported them.

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