THE BLOG
01/15/2015 02:41 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2015

How to Spot a Zombie Democracy

Is a country that holds regular elections a democracy? We take the electoral process to be the first symptom of a democracy, but that in and of itself is very far from sufficient. By that measure, Russia is a democracy, as are Iran and Singapore -- and indeed, many of the former Cold War Warsaw Pact regimes.

Yet we all understand that these countries fall well short of the status of democracies. And that is not, as is often alleged, merely because these countries are opposed to the US and its Western allies that do seem to have an effective monopoly on the definition of "democracy." Rather, it is because in spite of the superficial electoral processes they have in place, a small and very well entrenched governing clique simply cannot be dislodged from power by normal political means. The idea that Putin and his cronies could be ousted from power through a vote in Russia is as laughable as the idea that an elected Prime Minister of Iran could stand against the wishes and desires of the Ayatollahs and the Revolutionary Guard.

These "zombie" democracies, countries that are supposed to have democratic electoral practices in place, but do not behave at all democratically, have other obvious tells. One of them I have spoken about elsewhere: They are rife with conspiracy theories, and conspiracy theory thinking is actively promoted by pro-government media outlets and even government bodies themselves.

And the remarkable current developments in the global oil markets are a wonderful illustrator of this. Russia is by just about anyone's reckoning a Gulf-style petro-republic. It relies on oil and natural gas for two thirds of its exports and half of its government revenues. It used to be an industrial powerhouse in the days of the Soviet Union, but right now most of the country looks more like one big rust belt with pipelines on top.

And you'd think that after 15 years in power, Mr Putin would come in for some criticism for reducing the country's economy to an oil well and a gas field. He has talked about diversifying the economy in the past, but the results speak for themselves. So how is Mr Putin's popularity faring? Well, he has just been declared Russia's Man of the Year and he won by a margin that only the second coming of Jesus Christ could possibly replicate in Russia. Because Russia's current currency and economic crisis has nothing to do with Mr Putin's economic policies, or the sanctions the country has to endure as a result of Mr Putin's military adventures in Ukraine. Rather, it's all an international conspiracy between the Americans and the Saudi to artificially lower the global price of oil in order to tank the Russian economy.

Incidentally, Iran is quite happy to buy into this story too. Despite the fact that the current low oil and gas prices are threatening to kill America's "Shale Revolution," and is doing few favors the Saudis as well.

So what does a zombie democratic regime do when it is a member of OPEC, and can't blame its domestic problems global price-fixing conspiracies? A case that is currently very close to my mind is Venezuela. The Venezuelan regime is also highly dependent on oil prices. And even before the current developments in the world prices, the Venezuelan economy has struggled under poor management and corruption, despite being one of the most richly endowed countries in terms of natural resources in the world.

So when you run such a regime and are staring into the economic abyss, what do you do? For months, both government bodies and pro-government media have floated mostly unsubstantiated rumors of assassination and coup d'états plots. In the last few weeks the Venezuelan regime has moved against Maria Corina Machado, an electoral transparency campaigner with international standing, elected opposition politician and a close friend of mine. She stands accused of conspiracy to assassinate the incumbent President, Nicolas Maduro, and plotting to assume power in a coup. All based on a number of emails that have been certified as forgeries by the email service provider, Google, and little else. And after a long campaign of vilification and harassment.

It really does break my heart to see how far the principles of the Bolivarian Revolution have degenerated to serve the interests of an incompetent yet power hungry clique, and I urge the democratic international community to stand by Maria Corina Machado and prevent what looks set to become a huge abuse of justice and decency. These events must be watched closely, and must not stand by as another country lurks dangerously deeper into tyranny.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute US Army War College and International Security Lecturer at the University of Chicago