Do Diasporas Contribute to the Persistence of Authoritarian Rule? Responses of Eritrean Citizens Abroad to Transnational Governance

  • Globalization has witnessed an increase in the transnationalization of politics - a severely understudied subject in political science. The project’s main research question is if diasporas can stabilize authoritarian regimes. It explores diaspora responses to efforts of home regimes to exploit and control its citizens abroad. It examines how the political systems of host states influence political affiliations regarding homeland politics by comparing the transnational relations of Eritrean diaspora communities residing in five different countries.
    DFG, 2018-2021


    Dr. Milena Belloni

    University of Antwerp

    Dr. Tanja Müller

    Research Questions

    - Does diaspora behaviour contribute to the stabilization of authoritarian rule?
    - How do diasporas respond to the regime’s efforts to exploit and control its citizens abroad?
    - How does the political system of the host country (democratic/non-democratic) influence political socialisation and diaspora behaviour?

    Contribution to International Research

    Globalisation has led to increasing transnationalisation of politics. Yet, the influence of transnational social networks on homeland regimes has remained a severely understudied subject in political science. The aim of the project is to answer the question if diasporas contribute to the stabilisation of authoritarian regimes by exploring how diasporas respond to the efforts of their home regime to control its citizens abroad and to benefit from them. It further aims at examining how the political systems of host states and political socialization abroad influence political affiliations regarding homeland politics by comparing the transnational relations of Eritrean diaspora communities in five different countries. The theoretical framework is based on theories of transnationalism and theories of democratisation and persistence of authoritarian rule. Eritrea qualifies as a case study because it is among the most diasporic societies worldwide and currently the largest per-capita refugee-producer in Africa. The topic is of high political relevance due to the recent refugee influx into Europe including tens of thousands of Eritreans, but equally because of the immense importance of increasing transnationalisation of authoritarian policies. The relevance of the question how authoritarian regimes instrumentalise their exiled populations for domestic purposes extends far beyond this case study.The project will contribute to international research about transnational authoritarian governance and the globalization of domestic politics (Koslowsky 2015, Lyons and Mandaville 2012), diasporas and transnationalism (Bauböck and Faist 2010) and the role of diasporas in regard to the stabilization of authoritarian rule (Gerschewski 2012). It will also try to narrow the research gap concerning mechanisms that turn members of diaspora communities hosted in democratic environments into ardent supporters of autocratic regimes.

    Research Design and Methods

    Our research is based on a comparative study of five Eritrean diaspora communities in three democratic countries (Germany, Norway, UK) and in two non-democratic countries (Ethiopia, Egypt). We will conduct semi-structured interviews with Eritreans from different ethnic, religious and regional backgrounds as well as with Eritrean political and civil society activists in the diaspora. We distinguish between members of the established diaspora who left their home country during the independence struggle (1961-1991), second-generation diaspora Eritreans and refugees who have fled from the country in recent years. Our research will be further informed by long-term participant observation and by an in-depth analysis of different Eritrean online media outlets and social media activities of diaspora communities.

    Preliminary Findings

    Some of our preliminary findings are as follows: we found that although more and more diaspora Eritreans and most refugees feel critical about their home government, they contribute indirectly to the stabilization of the status quo by sending private remittances to sustain their families at home (about 95%) and partially through paying the diaspora tax for various reasons. We also found that the government has developed alternative mechanisms to raise funds (for example by diverting fees for baptisms and marriages by infiltrating Orthodox Church communities). In the course of the data analysis, we reconnected this information to our theoretical framework (coercion, legitimation and co-optation as pillars of authoritarian regimes). We found that democratic host countries are mainly seen as a space where sub-national identities can be expressed freely, unlike inside Eritrea, and that democratic rights are mainly used to form specific identity-based organizations and associations in the transnational Eritrean realm; however, political engagement in the host society is rarely considered as an option. Our assumption that Eritrean opposition parties were rather seen as inefficient and self-centered was affirmed by our respondents. We also found that government supporters, mainly ethnic Tigrinya, frequent pro-government associations and government-sponsored events because they consider it as a means of cultural expression and self-affirmation.


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