Take, for example, Alexander Lukashenko. He is in power for the last 26 years. How does he maintain the chain of command? Why do his ministers obey him? Why do bureaucrats obey him? Why does the Army obey him? Why wasn't he toppled yet?

The same question can be asked about Vladimir Putin.

What is their common secret about keeping a grip on the top office?

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    I think Lukashenko and Putin are not really in the same situation. The former is much more of a clear dictator, whereas Putin is in a more hybrid situation.
    – gerrit
    Commented Sep 7, 2020 at 8:43

7 Answers 7


This is a question that the selectorate theory tries to answer. Essentially:

  • As a dictator, you need to identify the people who are essential to you remaining in power. For example: the controllers of the army, the police, etc.

  • Then, you need to establish control of the revenue stream. This can take the form of taxes from the people, or natural resources that can be extracted to generate money.

  • Now, ensure the loyalty of the essential people by paying them using the revenue stream. Pay them enough so that they will remain loyal to you and follow your commands, but not so much that they cease to be dependent upon you.

  • You have now established a working dictatorship.

This is how dictatorships rise to power and stay there for many years. All that is needed is the support of a relatively small group of people, and the people can be kept under control by the army/police even if a majority disapproves of the current government.

If you don't think this is realistic, picture five people with machine guns in a room with one hundred people.

Why do the army/police follow their superiors' orders? Because the dictator's essential supporters don't just take the money they get from the dictator for themselves, they also redistribute it to their followers in order to ensure their loyalty, who do the same to their followers -- all the way down the chain of command.

There are some exceptions to this system. The first is protests. If the people are able to gather in a large enough group and organize, they are sometimes able to overwhelm the power of the state. Then, the state is either forced to make reforms, or it is completely overthrown and replaced with another. This does not happen often, however; usually, the government is able to repress the rebellions, unless the leader displeased his essential backers, and they support it. However, sometimes, such as when hundreds of thousands of people gather together in the aftermath of a natural disaster, the protests can succeed and the government is overthrown or forced to institute reforms.

Another thing that may cause a dictatorial government to fall or democratize is a failing economy. As less and less money trickles back to the government, the leader becomes unable to pay its essential backers as much as it used to. As a result, they may decline to suppress the population in the face of rebellion, and the government will be overthrown. Alternatively, the regime may decide to increase the citizens' productivity by providing public goods and increasing freedoms. For dictators, this path is risky, however, as this simply increases the ability of the people to protest for more reforms.

For more information, you can check out The Dictator's Handbook or watch CGP Grey's video on the subject Rules for Rulers for a simple explanation.

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    Why are protests an exception? What stops the government to quell these with force as well? See e.g. the Tiananmen square protests.
    – eirikdaude
    Commented Sep 7, 2020 at 9:25
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    @eirikdaude Presumably it comes down to numbers. Note that the answer said "they are sometimes able to overwhelm". A counter example doesn't disprove that. Continuing the answer's analogy, if 5 people in the room try to overwhelm the gunmen they will probably all die. If all 95 of the others do it, then (with some casualties) they will probably prevail.
    – JBentley
    Commented Sep 7, 2020 at 15:10

What makes you think there is a common secret? There are parallels and differences between all those cases.

  • A government will not hold unless it is supported by a significant part of the population. That does not have to be a majority as long as there is no clear majority against the government which can unite behind an alternative. A government which controls the military, police, and courts can overcome a certain disadvantage in numbers.
  • Senior officials will know that they might not stay senior officials under a new government. They could even go to jail. How far down would the new regime clear things and install their cronies?
  • Change brings uncertainty and fear. Ordinary people know what government they have now. They might be working for a company which remains in business because the management has connections to the government. There is food in the shops, electricity in the power grid, water in the pipes. Who knows what will happen if the government is overthrown?
  • As Alice mentioned, government propaganda can convince a population that outsiders are after them, aiming for the humiliation of the nation and the overthrow of order (such as it is). The propaganda works best if it contains a kernel of truth.

Look at countries which had a regime change in recent decades. Iraq. (OK, that one was imposed from outside.) Libya. Ukraine. For that matter, look at the fate of the Communist elites and the average population after the German Reunification -- while most people are objectively better off than they used to be, how that happened was traumatic.

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    "There is food in the shops, electricity in the power grid, water in the pipes" doesn't hold true for significant parts of Russia, yet it does not decrease population support as it would in more democratic countries. And the reason for that is something you didn't mention at all: state propaganda, patriotic and nationalistic fervour and fearmongering.
    – Alice
    Commented Sep 6, 2020 at 13:36
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    @o.m. To clarify, I'm not saying there is no food or electricity at all, I'm just saying there are regular temporary local shortages. But while any particular place or person experiences it maybe once in a few years, that is a systematic problem, not once in a while disaster. Still not as bad as DPRK, of course.
    – Alice
    Commented Sep 6, 2020 at 14:11
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    I think this is an excellent answer, it sums up actual, objective mechanisms. Maybe add than even if there exists a majority against the dictator, unless that majority can successfully unite, they have no chance. Eg Syria.
    – Ivana
    Commented Sep 7, 2020 at 19:21
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    @C.F.G, I mean that the January 2011 protests were fueled by domestic grievances. The intervention came afterwards.
    – o.m.
    Commented Sep 8, 2020 at 5:02
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    @gerrit Oh, it is a very expensive city. Thanks to corruption, building/repairing roads or replacing pipes regularly takes 10 times as much as it does in democratic cities per meter, and most of the difference goes to the millionaires so they can afford expensive condos. But, for example, over 50% of water and heating infrastructure is still 50+ years old. Just recently there was a dysentery outbreak in Moscow. The contrast between the poor and the rich is quite big, true, even without considering immigrants, but that's the same in most countries with significant income disparity, isn't it?
    – Alice
    Commented Sep 8, 2020 at 13:33

If you really want to know the details, the best resource I know of for the layman is the Cannonical Arab Tyrant's Manual. It was started as a hashtag during the beginning of the Arab Spring by online activist Iyad al-Baghdadi, and was built collaboratively by contributors. I'll quote some of the highlights below (skipping similar entries)

  • Blame it on a conspiracy. The more ridiculously bigger, the better. Our country is so awesome that everyone is trying to bring us down.
  • Burn down your own police stations and blame it on the protesters.
  • When things get bad, shut down mobile networks & social media. When they get really bad, shut down the internet.
  • Say that only a tiny percentage of the people are against me. The majority are with me. Cite the latest elections.
  • Say that your people are not ready for democracy. You have to pave the way to it, by acting like a complete asshole.
  • After your army steamrolls protests, swear that the army was unarmed. The protesters did it to themselves to frame you.
  • Choose a scruffy looking opposition figure who has no support among the people. Hold "talks" with him about change.
  • Blow up a Church and blame it on the Islamists. Say that your rule provides stability and protects minorities.
  • Let some crazy Islamists out of jail. Tell foreign politicians that if you allow free elections, they will come to power.
  • Call all your other tyrant buddies and ask them to provide guns & money for you. Tell them if you fall, they're next.

A lot of this is somewhat tongue in cheek of course, but it gets more serious at the end. Also, while it started out Arab-centric, and some of the entries are that way, it was quickly pointed out by people from places like Russia, China, and Central America that most of it is actually universal. If you really want some in-depth analysis of what is going on in the unfree world from insiders (who aren't profiting off the keptocracies in question), I'd suggest hitting their main website, for serious articles and podcasts.

  • 2
    Some of this looks awfully familiar Commented Sep 8, 2020 at 12:12
  • 2
    @user253751 - Yeah, most of these entries are over a decade old, but I daresay a person could easily go down the list and fill out examples from the last 10 years with little trouble.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 8, 2020 at 12:14

I don't know as much about internal politics of Belarus', but I can answer how it works in Russia. It's no secret, really.

  • There is a strong cult of personality aimed specifically at Putin. A lot of state propaganda aims at creating an image of "good Tzar and bad boyars". I.e. anything good that happens happens because of Putin, but anything bad that happens happens because of his enemies and/or corrupt subordinates. Anyone that would try to replace Putin would have this established ideology working against them.
  • There are multiple factions within the government, which are quite wary of each other, and neither of which has gotten a significant advantage so far. If one faction tries a power grab, others will surely retaliate.
  • No one is safe, no matter how high his position is (except Putin himself, of course). It is quite routine by now even for regional governors to get removed and sometimes jailed. Any traitor gets dealt with, even if they try to find refuge in other countries. And they get dealt with very visibly, to strike fear into anyone that considers the same.

All of the above means that odds of a successful coup are pretty low, while risks are quite high. It's just not worth it for the people already near the top.

  • 1
    The first case of your list, is exactly (not similar, it is exactly) what US presidents are doing. 11/9 is because of terrorist want to destroy US. US protesters (for Floyd and others) are terrorists. etc. In other side, we are protecting US from terrorists, e.g. by killing Al-Baghdadi. etc. This is the vein of power, right or wrong.
    – C.F.G
    Commented Sep 8, 2020 at 6:19

Not all dictatorships are created equal.

What they have in common:

  1. Pretending to be a democracy (monarchies are happy in their own club).

  2. Top-down economy. The government has a steady (for an extended period) income not really depending on taxes. It may be high profit government-owned or controlled natural resources (oil), government-owned big businesses, government-controlled essential trade, external credit stream, cohesion funding, whatever... that is not dependent on people's economic activity. The government purcasing power overhelms the rest of the economy. The big business (if exists) dependent on the government spending. The government takes care to suppress or overtake any attempt on independent business.

  3. Great deal of government spending assigned for "security" (police, army) and high percentage of the country's workforce employed in these structures. Also, extended rights and privileges of the "armed class". All these people depending on the very existence of the oppressive structure, and loyal to the government (or better yet, loyal to their direct management) and not to the law.

  4. Most of the media controlled to support the government. The ruler is represented as essential for the very existence of the country, economy, peace, etc... The ruler is pictured as physically, mentally, etc... superior to the general public and to other countries' leaders.

  5. A government-appointed external enemy (one that is allied to anyone inside trying to question the absolute power).

  6. A weak and grotesque (and sometimes even government-appointed) opposition that never gets more than 15-20% of votes.

  7. Unlimited term for the top ruler. It may be either that:

    • the corresponding law does not contain a reasonable limit,
    • the limit applies not to the top ruler (e.g. it is the president that is limited in term and it is the prime minister who actually controls everything),
    • the limit is weakly enforced (allowing for the top ruler to swap places with their #2 as many times as they please)
    • the limit is in the books but the government doesn't really care and no one is in a position to oppose.
  8. Warm and profoundly personal relationships between the ruler and the rulers of similar regimes.

  9. Executive branch controlling legislative and judical branches.

  10. Rampant corruption. Bribes essential for everyday life. Everyone can be punished for it, but only select ones actually prosecuted (and even less actually punished hard).

  11. The society as a whole is profoundly tolerant to rules and laws broken. Everyone is forced somehow in the wrong and is Okay-ish with others stealing something as long as he himself is alowed to make living.


You mention specifically Lukashenko and Putin and one thing nobody have talked about is how candidates are made invalid up to an election.

For Lukashenko it was of course Sergei Tikhanovsky that was not allowed to run.

By setting up rules for who can run (Has to be a Russian national for a number of years etc) the valid opposition gets removed and what is left is either people you don't want to vote for, or as it was in Belarus, a coalition that made no sense.

In many ways this also resemble how established parties, in democracies, sometimes build structures that enforce their own power.

My guess is that with only Sviatlana running in the recent election Lukashenko could have won without election fraud (and there is a chance there wasn't fraud, because there were no officials from other countries). Putin can of course win any election with ease.


A dictatorship is a political system, where political pluralism is not legislated and dependent, not independent Propaganda is executed. There is no Democracy: right of assembly, right of speech, right to vote... (human rights). One could say dictatorship is the opposite of democracy. A dictatorship does not have Separations of Powers (Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary).

Belarus: The main Precursor/Problem why Alexander Lukashenko can stay so long in power and continue his authoritarian Regime is because the Belarusian constitution offers an unlimited time for a presidential winner if reelected again and again, after an emerged referendum. Another reason is that the presidential Ruler of Belarus after the Constitution can control both Legislative and Executive. Take for example the United States of America, the presidential ruler is part of the Executive but not of the Legislate (Congress), neither of the Judiciary. This means there is a big power vacuum in Belarus. The Belarusian president also can influence the judiciary system, because the highest judiciary court can only appeal a case against if the head of state agrees. That's not how a judiciary system is supposed to function. Article 1 | Section 1 of the Belarusian Constitution declares:

The Republic of Belarus is a unitary, democratic, social state based on the rule of law. The Republic of Belarus exercises supreme control and absolute authority over the whole of its territory, and shall implement an independent internal and foreign policy. The Republic of Belarus shall defend its independence and territorial integrity, its constitutional system, and safeguard legality and law and order.

Though the Belarusian Constitution proclaims Belarus as a democratic republic the systematic separation and representation of powers, shows that it's rather an authoritarian regime than a republic. This is not new, because even all countries call themselves democracies even though they're not. Paradoxically Nazi Germany's so-called democracy, mentioned by Goebbels, Hitler's minister on propaganda was a dictatorship.

The main perspective is not only meant to be looked from Lukashenko's or dictators' methodical, political participation but also the constitutional, fundamental system of Belarus. Law is the main problem of the country's failing. If Law is not maintained and ordered correctly for a country, so will not the unwise political participation occur? If lawlessness then no stability of president, people, and society.

  • 4
    I think you are confusing cause and effect: Lukashenko would not be a dictator because Belarussian's constitution does allow it, but Belarussian's constitution does not check Lukashenko's power becuase Lukashenko is a dictator and has setup a constitution to fit his needs (while keeping an air of democracy).
    – SJuan76
    Commented Sep 6, 2020 at 16:38
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    And the line about Nazi Germany is plain wrong (Godwin anyone?); while the NSDAP did participate in elections, it never pretended to be democratic and once it got to power it banned political parties and openly established a dictatorship. Nobody (and least of them the NSDAP) claimed that Nazi Germany was a democracy.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Sep 6, 2020 at 16:39
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    That the NSDAP banns political parties does not mean they believe they're not in a real democracy. Even Goebbels, minister of propaganda, close to Hitler said I quote: "Wir Deutschen leben in einer wahren Demokratie" or in English, "We Germans live in a true democracy". Even Republics that follow political Islamism in today's society call themselves a democracy even though it is not correct. It is not about facts, it's about belief where I wanted to draw attention to. You should make some research because someone like Goebbels said this. And he was a Nazi-politician.
    – Gregory
    Commented Sep 6, 2020 at 17:43
  • The only thing Lukashenko did to the constitution is to give a president unlimited terms, by referendum. Law is a fundamental problem in Belarus because it assures the president, the Legislative branch and he is part of the Executive. From the constitution, it`s nearly impossible for the judiciary branch to condemn Lukashenko because he has to decide whether the judiciary may take a case or not. He didn't make that law. And the Legislative became a ground for Lawmaking by Lukashenko. He couldn't do this if the constitution prohibited such actions.
    – Gregory
    Commented Sep 6, 2020 at 18:02

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