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March 2024

I founded the Authoritarian Politics Lab five years ago out of a recognition that academic research was failing to keep pace with the evolving nature of authoritarianism. Conventional theories provided little leverage on important questions, such as why individuals support autocrats even in tough economic times, or why the social media boom has strengthened many regimes. That gap in knowledge has real world implications: authoritarian regimes are associated with increased human rights abuses, violence and repression, and lower life expectancy.

With the AP Lab, I sought to bring together scholars to develop path-breaking work on modern authoritarianism, while bridging the gap between research and the broader community at Carolina and around the world. 

In our first five years, we have done just that. The AP Lab fosters research on the foundations of authoritarian rule, on mobilization of people for and against authoritarian regimes and on major issues of governance in non-democratic and semi-democratic contexts. Articles developed in the AP workshop have been published in the top political science journals in the world, and our first generation of graduate students have moved to positions at leading institutions. Our post-doc and visiting fellow program has attracted scholars from top universities in the US, Russia, Turkey and Germany. Our undergraduate programming engages Carolina students in the research process, provides opportunities to work with human rights organizations via the OVD-Info Human Rights Fellowship, and prepares them to participate in shaping a better future.

Graeme Robertson meets with students at the Kyiv School of Economics in 2023
Graeme Robertson meets with students at the Kyiv School of Economics in 2023.

Our mission is more important now than ever. I witnessed this first hand when I traveled to Ukraine in 2023 to teach at the Kyiv School of Economics and advise Ukrainian graduate students who were conducting research amid Russia’s brutal war. It was moving to see the resilience of these students and of the Ukrainian people, but my visit to Bucha, the site of extraordinary brutality only 18 months earlier, underscored the devastation that autocratic power can unleash. As a result of these activities and my efforts to educate the public about Russia’s actions in Ukraine, I was formally placed under sanctions by the Russian government in February 2024. This consequence has only galvanized my commitment to this work.

In our next five years, our goal is to establish the AP Lab and UNC as the preeminent site for research on authoritarianism. We are growing our international connections, expanding our human rights fellowship program to new locations allowing Carolina undergraduates to support NGOs under threat, and bringing international scholars to UNC as visiting fellows. We are continuing outreach to inform the broader community about authoritarianism. And of course, we are continuing to produce innovative research that can impact not just academia, but the world.

We hope you’ll join us.

Graeme B. Robertson