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His most effective tool of suppression: Hugo Chavez understands that elections create a veneer of legitimacy

For many young Muscovites, the highlight of their summer is a week spent at a summer camp on the banks of Lake Seliger. Teenagers make the five-hour journey northeast of the Russian capital looking forward to swimming, cycling and kayaking. But proceedings at the Camp Seliger, which is organized by the heavily-subsidised pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, have a dark ideological tinge. Evenings are spent listening to defences of Putin and watching photographic montages of the impaled heads of Gary Kasparov and other dissidents. In 2007, in a part of the camp called "the red-light district" hung posters with the faces of opposition leaders on the bodies of half-naked women. Above the doctored image a sign read "political prostitutes".

In modern Russia, this lewd propaganda is one of the more imaginative ways in which Putin's apparatchiks suppress dissent and cultivate order. According to William J. Dobson, Nashi and its summer camps are evidence that autocrats like Putin are evolving.

As Dobson points out in The Dictator's Learning Curve, we tend to think of authoritarian regimes as "dinosaurs — clumsy, stupid, lumbering behemoths, reminiscent of the Soviet Union in its final days or some insecure South American banana republic". It is a comforting thought: the kleptocrats are too inept to be here forever. With diligent reporting and shrewd analysis, Dobson, who is the foreign affairs editor of online magazine Slate, dispels that myth and reminds us that, even in the age of Facebook and Twitter — those supposedly emancipatory tools — there is nothing inevitable about a dictator's collapse. Dobson argues that dictatorships have survived the challenges of the 21st Century by adapting with surprising suppleness.

Violence, censorship and brutish intimidation still have a place in the dictator's armoury. But Dobson's neo-autarchs understand that a seemingly fair legal system and a semblance of democracy are just as effective instruments of power. Venezuelans, for instance, have voted 13 times since Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999. That is because elections are Chavez's most effective tool of suppression. The Venezuelan leader "understands that it is better to appear to win a contested election than to openly steal it". Of course, these polls are really a formality. Chavez spends the state's money on his campaign and has shut down dozens of dissenting television channels and newspapers. But carefully orchestrated votes create a veneer of legitimacy.

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