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While all war is a brutal business, civil wars especially risk horrific violence, as conflicts between neighbors shatter a social fabric and leave bodies and mistrust in their wake. Given the specific nastiness that comes from conflicts waged within the border of a country, one might expect that precision and restraint will guide the warring forces. What’s the advantage of escalating violence and brutality?
Unfortunately, in “Repression Works (Just Not in Moderation),” Yuri M. Zhukov examines if there is a threshold of violence a government can impose against rebel groups, after which rebel groups stop being able to offer resistance.
Zhukov argues that “what rebels do depends on how much violence the government uses: repression inflames opposition activity at low and moderate levels, but deters it in the extreme. There is a threshold level of violence, at which repression outpaces the opposition’s ability to recover losses.”
Constraints on speech and freedom of movement limit the ability of people to organize against the repressive actions of a government. So long as effective surveillance and control can be maintained, authoritarian states stand a good chance of resisting violent challenges.
Some but insufficient repression, the study suggests, places a government in the worst position of all: Rebel groups will have the capacity to escalate further, and the government will have done too much violence to regain its authoritative hold on the populace.
To see if this hypothesis was supported by observed conflict, Zhukov focused on violence by month and region in Chechnya from May 2000 to March 2012 and then confirmed the findings in data sets of other conflicts for 71 other countries. The Chechnya data set showed 35,130 incidents of government violence and 9451 incidents of rebel violence.
“In an average locality, fewer than one rebel attack occurred in months following no use of government violence, and 18 attacks if the government escalated to 100 operations per month. This number dropped to less than one attack per month where the government was more extreme (250 operations per month),” writes Zhukov.
Rebels, by virtue of fewer resources at the start of a conflict, often have to be more selective in their use of violence. What this illustrates is that, even with the clumsiness of massive force, Russian government forces in Chechnya were able to do enough violence to achieve repression, even when it was inaccurately applied.
“Inefficient force can only maintain its coercive effect if it is so overwhelming that the guilty are punished along with the innocent. Violence is a substitute for information,” writes Zhukov.
Better information for governments, in the form of secret police and surveillance states, can lower the threshold at which a government can achieve sufficient repressive violence. Constraints on speech and freedom of movement limit the ability of people to organize against the repressive actions of a government. So long as effective surveillance and control can be maintained, authoritarian states stand a good chance of resisting violent challenges.
“The purpose of such research, needless to say, is not to advise dictators on how to repress their own people,” concludes Zhukov. “If we are to understand why these acts of unspeakable cruelty happen, it is necessary to examine the incentives their perpetrators face and how their targets are likely to react.”