04 Oct

Do Sanctions Work Against Authoritarian Regimes?

Facebook Twitter Email Pinterest Reddit Tumblr

Recently former Ambassador Richard Kauzlarich and Freedom House head David J. Kramer published an article calling for sanctions against Azerbaijan. And while I agree that more drastic and creative measures must be taken, I am not sure that experience shows that sanctions are an effective tool against an authoritarian regime.

Now, you may wonder if I have a better idea. I don’t. But I do know that “annoying” the regime in Azerbaijan does not seem to “help” any citizens. And I know how to review literature. So here it is. I am by no means an expert on this topic, but in my review of the literature, this is what I’ve found. If you don’t have access to these articles and want it, please let me know.

This is a great summary of the work on targeted sanctions, by the way.


“Because personalist regimes and monarchies are more sensitive to the loss of external sources of revenue (such as foreign aid and taxes on trade) to fund patronage, rulers in these regimes are more likely to be destabilized by [economic] sanctions than leaders in other types of regimes. In contrast, when dominant single-party and military regimes are subject to sanctions, they increase their tax revenues and reallocate their expenditures to increase their levels of cooptation and repression.” [Article]

I’d probably argue that Azerbaijan is more personalist (with an emphasis on patronage) than single-party/military, so there’s a point in favor of sanctions.

I couldn’t find any other articles that said that sanctions work.


““With very few exceptions and under highly unusual sets of circumstances, economic sanctions have historically proven to be an ineffective means to achieve foreign-policy objectives.” [Article]

Oh. Crap.

“Single-party regimes, when targeted by sanctions, increase spending on subsidies and transfers which largely benefit their key constituencies. Likewise, military regimes increase their expenditures on goods and services, which include military equipment and soldiers’ and officers’ wages. Conversely, personalist regimes targeted by sanctions reduce spending in all categories and thus increase repression more than other autocracies.” [Article]

Increase repression? Oh no! This isn’t looking good.

“We argue that economic sanctions worsen the level of democracy because the economic hardship caused by sanctions can be used as a strategic tool by the targeted regime to consolidate authoritarian rule and weaken the opposition.” [Article]

This is possible in Azerbaijan.

“Most significantly, sanctions strengthen nondemocratic rule if the regime manages to incorporate their existence into its legitimation strategy. Such a rally-round-the-flag effect occurs most often in cases where comprehensive sanctions targeting the entire population are imposed on regimes that enjoy strong claims to legitimacy and have only limited linkages to the sanction sender.” [Article] [Article]

Damn – more evidence that sanctions strengthen authoritarian rule. This isn’t looking good.

“Leaders targeted with economic sanctions or the threat thereof face systematically lower risks of losing office through a mechanism indicative of failure than do those who have not been “punished” by another state or the international community.” [Article]

So sanctions may help a leader stay in power?

“Autocratic regimes lower the supply of public goods to reduce private-sector productivity and hence the resources of potential challengers. As a result, sanctions-induced challenges become less likely and the sanctions episode may end in failure.” [Article]

The leader will just make sure that people don’t feel the hit from sanctions – this is entirely doable in Azerbaijan. They have a lot of money.

“While agreeing that authoritarians are indeed more robust to sanctions at most times, this article argues that there exist “windows of opportunity,” created by domestic instability, which make dictatorships particularly vulnerable to sanctions pressures.” [Article]

Sanctions only work in windows of domestic instability – and Azerbaijan rarely sees that. So this doesn’t bode well for sanctions.

“Sanctions can have a devastating impact on both the target country’s economic and political stability, and women often suffer significantly from the effects of such external shocks due to their vulnerable socioeconomic and political status. We thus argue that foreign economic pressures will reduce the level of respect for women’s rights in the targeted countries.” [Article]

Uh oh – economic sanctions can hurt women. Azerbaijani women are already doing pretty poorly. But in this model, economic and political stability must be impacted first, so because of the lack of a direct effect, maybe we shouldn’t be too worried about this.

I really enjoyed the original article and I am happy to hear some creative ideas about Azerbaijan, but the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that sanctions, even targeted ones, don’t make a big difference in the lives of everyday citizens and may even hurt people more.