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Dictators and Their Secret Police: Coercive Institutions and State Violence, Sheena Chestnut Greitens

Reviewed by Zoltan Barany



The literature on the resurgence of authoritarianism that has followed the third wave of democratization has grown by leaps and bounds, but its coverage is quite uneven. One of the key areas that has not received sufficient scholarly attention is the coercive apparatus of the state. Within this category, the regular armed forces have been the focus of most studies, while the secret police—arguably an even more important agent of domestic repression—has been comparatively neglected.

Sheena Chestnut Greitens's new book is therefore a necessary addition to the literature. Given the poor coverage of the topic, her books holds the promise of being something of a pioneering work. It does not disappoint. The book's focus is placed squarely on two important and related questions: what determines the design of autocratic coercive institutions, and what effect does their institutional design have on patterns of repression and the use of violence against civilians? Throughout the book, Greitens clearly demonstrates not only that the institutional variations resulting from the design choices of authoritarian regimes result in different patterns of violence but also, importantly, that these variations are predictable. She argues that “the more fragmented, socially exclusive security apparatus, associated with a high initial threat from elites, is l

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