Martin Dimitrov: Wilson Center fellow, assistant professor of government, Dartmouth College
Joseph Sassoon: Wilson Center public policy scholar, adjunct professor of contemporary Arab studies, Georgetown University
With varying degrees of success, authoritarian regimes frequently co-opt their citizens to gather information on and undermine their domestic opposition. According to Martin Dimitrov, communist Bulgaria's ability to suppress dissent was diminished from the 1970s onward because the Western-led international human rights regime forced the government to replace harsher methods it had previously used with a system of rewards for volunteer informants and reprimands for dissidents. The ineffectiveness of these tactics contributed to the regime's eventual collapse. In contrast, Joseph Sassoon explained that Iraq's Ba'th Party—unable to rely upon a superpower for support and steeled by a series of wars—was able to remain in power for thirty-five years in part because it did not relax its efforts at co-optation and repression as the regime matured.
The security services of single-party autocratic regimes frequently co-opt their citizens, Martin Dimitrov suggested, to compensate for the fact that their governments function in an "information vacuum." Given individuals' tendency to hide their discontent out of fear of persecution, leaders of autocratic regimes "actively search for strategies that would allow them […] to obtain accurate information about the public mood" to ensure their long-term survival.
Dimitrov described the Bulgarian secret police informant network to show how Bulgaria's communist government collected and responded to information on the public mood. Until the 1960s, the Bulgarian secret police "used rewards and punishments to co-opt individuals to become informants. This information was then used to target repression more precisely" through surveillance, intimidation, lengthy prison terms, and torture.
Beginning in the 1970s, Dimitrov pointed out, the evolving international human rights regime— bolstered by the 1975 Helsinki Final Act—limited the Bulgarian authorities' ability to punish dissidents or those who refused to inform on them. From this period onward, most co-optees were volunteers who sought to obtain "certain benefits from the authorities" in exchange for regular reports to the secret police. Moreover, the collected information was used to issue "warnings and reprimands, instead of prison sentences" to regime opponents. Dimitrov concluded that the decline in the Bulgarian secret police's ability to co-opt citizens and suppress opposition contributed to the eventual collapse of the system.
By contrast, according to Joseph Sassoon, Iraq's Ba`thist regime was able to remain in power for 35 years "due partly to its ability to instill fear in the population." Unlike the communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe, Iraq was involved in numerous wars during the party's reign and the regime lacked a "patron superpower" that would intervene to help smother domestic opposition. The Ba'th Party therefore employed an elaborate surveillance system aimed at "instilling fear into the population and using torture and violence to extract information or to destroy the alleged enemies of the people." The regime sought not only to suppress their real and perceived enemies, but also, Sassoon suggested, to "destroy even the potential for resistance and dissent."
All of these efforts were supported by information from informers and collaborators. Because "the [Ba`th Party] had to rely on itself to ensure ‘coup-proofing' and to co-opt large segments of the population […], repression did not decline with the maturity of the regime," as it did in Bulgaria. In sum, Sassoon argued that the Ba`th regime largely succeeded in forcing the majority of individuals to adjust their values in order to survive, despite the existence of various resistance movements, until Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003.
Drafted by Elizabeth Zolotukhina, Program Assistant, European Studies
Christian F. Ostermann, Director, History and Public Policy Program & European Studies