How Do Dictatorships Fall?

 

Asked about Obama’s foreign policy achievements, his defenders always trot out Cuba as a historic diplomatic success. In their minds, the re-establishment of relations with that small, impoverished, long-suffering dictatorship falls somewhere between Commodore Perry’s breaking down the door to Japan in 1853 and Nixon’s China gambit on the Richter scale of statesmanship.

The mantra of our Cuba policy objectives is “a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy.” According to our State Department:

“U.S. policy toward Cuba is focused on supporting our values, such as freedom of speech and assembly and the ability to access information, through engagement. The U.S. government is reaching out to the Cuban people by fostering increased travel access and people-to-people exchanges, encouraging the development of telecommunications and the internet, and creating opportunities for U.S. businesses to support the growth of Cuba’s nascent private sector.”

In my Havana Postcard, a few weeks ago, I opined that opening Cuba to American tourist dollars would probably have little if any positive effect on freedom in that country. This got me thinking about how regimes such as the one run by the Castro crime family are supposed to fail. Are there any general theories out there about how authoritarian and totalitarian regimes collapse? And upon which theory does our current Cuba policy rest?

In the 1980s, the reigning theory of the lifecycle of authoritarianism and totalitarianism was something called the Kirkpatrick Doctrine. Named for our formidable UN Ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, this doctrine was based on the idea that right-wing dictatorships, although distasteful, could liberalize, while Communist dictatorships were permanent and incapable of reform. This theory dovetailed nicely with its Soviet counterpart – the Brezhnev Doctrine. The Brezhnev Doctrine stated that the Soviet Union would go to great lengths to ensure that once countries entered the communist camp, they would remain there. The Soviet bloc was a kind of Roach Motel: Countries check in, but they don’t check out.

The Kirkpatrick Doctrine was a political expedient, not a theory in the scientific or even the political sense. It was primarily useful as an explanation for the support that the United States lent to anti-communist authoritarian regimes around the world, from South Korea and the Kuomintang in Asia to the various tinpot dictatorships of Latin America.

As an empirical matter, though, the Kirkpatrick Doctrine had persuasive power. Prior to 1989, precisely zero communist regimes had evolved into liberal democracies. By contrast, during the same period, a number of anticommunist authoritarian regimes and military dictatorships had liberalized: South Korea, Taiwan, Greece, Spain, and Portugal, for example. Others were on their way to becoming democratic: Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and the Philippines. Something in the character of communist regimes seemed to make them a one-way street.

This picture changed drastically in 1989. The worldview embodied in the Kirkpatrick and Brezhnev doctrines was chiseled in the granite of conventional wisdom, so everyone on both sides of the Iron Curtain had the wind knocked out of them when the Soviet empire crumbled into dust, closely followed by the Soviet Union itself (despite the best efforts of the George H. W. Bush administration, with all of its horses and all of its men, to put Humpty Dumpty back together again).

Much ink has been spilled asking how and why the Soviet empire collapsed. On the left, credit is given almost entirely to the alleged courage and vision of Mikhail Gorbachev. The common view on the right is that Reagan understood and exploited the hidden structural weaknesses of the Soviet regime and succeeded in spending the Russians into submission and bankruptcy. The latter view is far closer to the truth, but it is incomplete.

As North Korea shows, even a desperately poor slave society run by a deranged madman can muddle along indefinitely, and even build ICBMs and a nuclear arsenal, if it can muster the necessary political will and brutality and if foreign powers do not intervene. The Soviet Union’s fall was due to the exhaustion and collapse of the necessary political will and ruthlessness on the part of the Communist Party, combined with the relentless political, economic, and strategic pressure Reagan applied — mostly against the advice of the American foreign policy establishment and even his own advisors. But there was nothing inevitable about this outcome. In fact, the whole thing was highly improbable.

The stunning events of 1989 and 1991 caused the Kirkpatrick Doctrine to be scrapped and replaced by Francis Fukuyama’s End of History theory, which posited that after the collapse of communism, liberal democracy remained the only viable model for organizing society. All of the world’s dictatorships would eventually fall in line. And since democracies don’t fight other democracies, our future would be one of perpetual peace, rainbows, and boredom.

Fukuyama’s famous argument is often paired with one articulated by Charles Krauthammer in an influential September 1990 Foreign Affairs article titled The Unipolar Moment. Krauthammer observed that following the defeat of global communism, the United States had become the world’s unrivaled superpower. Krauthammer argued that this temporary historical position allowed the United States an unprecedented window of opportunity to impose its will and its values on the world, and that we should not hesitate to do so. He argued, in other words, for a strategy of global domination.

From the vantage point of 2016, it is difficult to entertain either position. The Whig or neo-Hegelian notion that history has a beginning, middle, and end; a direction, a logic, and an arc that bends this way or that, seems dubious. The thought that the United States should impose its values on the world has caused us no end of trouble. Yet we still mostly view the trajectory toward ever-greater democracy and freedom as somehow natural. Both George W. Bush (2005) and Barack H. Obama (2011) are on record as saying that “freedom beats in every human heart.” Hence the almost universal expectation that Cuba will follow in the footsteps of other communist states, helped along by American influence and benevolence. We may call this view “democratic romanticism.”

In light of what we know today, what can we say about how dictatorships turn into democracies? Why did so many authoritarian regimes democratize during the 1980s and 90s, and why have so few done so since then?

The answer must surely have something to do with the nature of the Cold War. The Cold War is usually described as having had a “polarizing” effect on the international system, which was itself characterized by its “bipolarity” during that period. What this jargon means is that the political orientation of the world was shaped by powerful ideological and political forces created by the diametrically opposite poles of the United States and the Soviet Union.

This metaphor, borrowing from the physics concept of field theory, is useful when thinking about the political forces acting on and within states. The strongest impulse orienting authoritarian regimes toward liberal democracy was the Cold War itself and the effect it had states caught up the massive force fields to which that conflict gave rise. What all of the liberalizing regimes – Taiwan, South Korea, Chile, Argentina, etc., – had in common was alignment with the United States in the Cold War; they were therefore, to a greater or lesser degree, subject to powerful American influence.

One might add that the most infamous totalitarian regimes of the right – Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan – were brought to their demise through the application of American influence, although of a more robust and direct kind. But their transformation into liberal democracies also owed much to the Cold War.

Shortly after the Cold War ended, the bipolarity evaporated, and the global trend toward democracy and liberalization greatly weakened. Its last expression – the Arab Spring – failed miserably, to the complete indifference of the Western democracies.

The very concept of democratic government seems tattered and shopworn nowadays, even within its historic heartland. Consensual government isn’t a set of institutions, so much as it is a culture and a set of mental habits. Unfortunately, even Americans don’t seem to believe in our own deep principles in politically significant numbers anymore, as the current election season seems to indicate.

Despite our president’s epoch-making visit to Cuba this week, a “rapid, peaceful transition to democracy” is a pipe dream based in wishful thinking and democratic romanticism. The Castro brothers and their friends have learned from the mistakes of Mikhail Gorbachev. They will fill their Swiss bank accounts with American dollars and their dungeons with political prisoners.

Left to its own devices, the natural state of human government is dictatorship of one form or another. Just as every businessman wants to be a monopolist, every politician wants to be a dictator, and only a few societies have developed institutional and psychic safeguards against these tendencies. To ask how totalitarian regimes fail is begging the question, since the question assumes without further inquiry that totalitarian and authoritarian regimes must necessarily fail in the end. It is consensual government, not dictatorship, that requires an explanation.

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  1. Sandy Member
    Sandy
    @Sandy

    Well done, Oblomov.

    Do not all regimes necessarily fail in the end?  Among other reasons, this would be due to the universal principle that all things that come into being also pass away. The question perhaps ought to be whether authoritarian, and particularly totalitarian, regimes have a longer life than republican regimes.  If they are more “natural,” as you assert, the answer ought to be “yes.”  I agree that dictatorship is a natural state, but I think that state begins with the individual person, who naturally wishes to rule himself, and who therefore comes into inevitable conflict with others, while simultaneously seeking their company and support.  A ruler who does not take this into account will have much trouble internally, or will be dependent upon outside help (see North Korea, etc).

    Regimes seem to fail in two ways: they fall apart internally or they are conquered externally, and often both happen together.  Totalitarian regimes are subject to both challenges. They contain both the strength and the weakness that comes from being run by terror, but in the end they depend upon the weakness of their enemies.  This is, I think, what we saw in the fall of the USSR, i.e., a stronger enemy.  Cuba’s enemy has weakened, which suggests that the Cuban regime will be strengthened by our actions. I admire the strength of the Cuban people, but at least in the near future I am not hopeful.

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  2. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    A really excellent article.   I was around in those old days.  Kirkpatrick was responding in part to the left’s constant hounding about democracy.  They were the nation builders in those days, Wilsonians urging us to  overthrow dictators and remake them into democracies. Unless, of course those dictators were marxists,who were sacrosanct.   I think Kirkpatrick suspected that the American and European left who never saw a non marxist authoritarian they didn’t want to overthrow were being manipulated by Moscow.  It certainly worked in that direction because the post dictatorship chaos brought hard leftists into the vacuum with unnatural speed.   Another point on Castro.  Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador Peru were all in the Castro regimes sights after the fall of the Soviet Union but they had switched from a failed and costly insurgency strategy to electoral strategies.   Why?  The regime needed safe havens to flee to in a post Castro collapse and income from oil and drugs in the mean time.  It is still up in the air what will happen in a post Castro Cuba but he Obama administration has allowed the Castro regime to strengthen its hand and improve their chances to survive after the brothers die.  I think transition in Venezuela a key. That would mean no more oil or easy drug flows, but now they’ll get American tourist dollars to help fill that gap.

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  3. Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe
    @PaulARahe

    Sad but true.

    • #3
  4. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    Excellent post. Anytime someone is able to bring such clarity to such a complicated topic, I’m very grateful. Thank you, O.

    Now for a sincere question about this:

    Oblomov: One might add that the most infamous totalitarian regimes of the right – Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan – were brought to their demise through the application of American influence, although of a more robust and direct kind. But their transformation into liberal democracies also owed much to the Cold War.

    What made Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan “regimes of the right”? I’m not disagreeing with you (I don’t want to fall into the trap of “if it’s evil, it must be on the left), but what are the common features that put these regimes on the right of the spectrum?

    Another way to ask this might be, “Where do you disagree with Jonah Goldberg?”

    • #4
  5. Cyrano Inactive
    Cyrano
    @Cyrano

    Western Chauvinist:Excellent post. Anytime someone is able to bring such clarity to such a complicated topic, I’m very grateful. Thank you, O.

    Agreed.  This is a superb and insightful post.

    Now for a sincere question about this:

    Oblomov: One might add that the most infamous totalitarian regimes of the right – Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan – were brought to their demise through the application of American influence, although of a more robust and direct kind. But their transformation into liberal democracies also owed much to the Cold War.

    What made Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan “regimes of the right”? I’m not disagreeing with you (I don’t want to fall into the trap of “if it’s evil, it must be on the left), but what are the common features that put these regimes on the right of the spectrum?

    Another way to ask this might be, “Where do you disagree with Jonah Goldberg?”

    This is one of the (very many) situations where the simple, 1D political spectrum fails us.  It’s a lot easier to pin those regimes, and differentiate them from other ostensibly “right” or “left”  ideologies, on any of the available 2D charts, such as this one.

    • #5
  6. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    Cyrano:

    Western Chauvinist:Excellent post. Anytime someone is able to bring such clarity to such a complicated topic, I’m very grateful. Thank you, O.

    Agreed. This is a superb and insightful post.

    Now for a sincere question about this:

    Oblomov: One might add that the most infamous totalitarian regimes of the right – Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan – were brought to their demise through the application of American influence, although of a more robust and direct kind. But their transformation into liberal democracies also owed much to the Cold War.

    What made Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan “regimes of the right”? I’m not disagreeing with you (I don’t want to fall into the trap of “if it’s evil, it must be on the left), but what are the common features that put these regimes on the right of the spectrum?

    Another way to ask this might be, “Where do you disagree with Jonah Goldberg?”

    This is one of the (very many) situations where the simple, 1D political spectrum fails us. It’s a lot easier to pin those regimes, and differentiate them from other ostensibly “right” or “left” ideologies, on any of the available 2D charts, such as this one.

    So, while NG, FI, and IJ were lower on personal freedom, they were higher on the economic freedom index? Is this accurate? Where does nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, etc… come into play?

    I’m not sure I accept the premise.

    • #6
  7. Cyrano Inactive
    Cyrano
    @Cyrano

    Western Chauvinist:

    Cyrano:

    This is one of the (very many) situations where the simple, 1D political spectrum fails us. It’s a lot easier to pin those regimes, and differentiate them from other ostensibly “right” or “left” ideologies, on any of the available 2D charts, such as this one.

    So, while NG, FI, and IJ were lower on personal freedom, they were higher on the economic freedom index? Is this accurate? Where does nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, etc… come into play?

    I’m not sure I accept the premise.

    On the Nolan Chart, at least, I think most people (including myself, and the Wikipedia page I linked to) would place FI, NG, and IJ in the Statist quadrant, with little economic or personal freedom.  IMHO, nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, etc.., are not dimensions in a political spectrum per se, but rather are tools that can be wielded (especially) by statists to gather, expand and sustain their power.

    • #7
  8. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    Cyrano:

    Western Chauvinist:

    Cyrano:

    This is one of the (very many) situations where the simple, 1D political spectrum fails us. It’s a lot easier to pin those regimes, and differentiate them from other ostensibly “right” or “left” ideologies, on any of the available 2D charts, such as this one.

    So, while NG, FI, and IJ were lower on personal freedom, they were higher on the economic freedom index? Is this accurate? Where does nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, etc… come into play?

    I’m not sure I accept the premise.

    On the Nolan Chart, at least, I think most people (including myself, and the Wikipedia page I linked to) would place FI, NG, and IJ in the Statist quadrant, with little economic or personal freedom. IMHO, nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, etc.., are not dimensions in a political spectrum per se, but rather are tools that can be wielded (especially) by statists to gather, expand and sustain their power.

    Okay, but I can’t find “statist” on the Nolan Chart linked, and I might have a different definition of statism if my right-leaning ideology is supposed to be “statist.”

    Sorry, O, don’t mean to hijack the thread. It’s just disconcerting to me when we casually use terminology that suggests right-wingers are the statist, racist, nationalist, authoritarian, war-mongering haters the Left portrays us as. I’m trying to figure out how they get away with associating conservatives with Nazis.

    • #8
  9. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    Western Chauvinist:Excellent post. Anytime someone is able to bring such clarity to such a complicated topic, I’m very grateful. Thank you, O.

    Now for a sincere question about this:

    Oblomov: One might add that the most infamous totalitarian regimes of the right – Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan – were brought to their demise through the application of American influence, although of a more robust and direct kind. But their transformation into liberal democracies also owed much to the Cold War.

    What made Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan “regimes of the right”? I’m not disagreeing with you (I don’t want to fall into the trap of “if it’s evil, it must be on the left), but what are the common features that put these regimes on the right of the spectrum?

    Another way to ask this might be, “Where do you disagree with Jonah Goldberg?”

    Thanks WC.

    Fair point about your question. I don’t disagree with Jonah at all. I was using the term “regimes of the right” in the shorthand sense of that term, as it was understood during the Cold War.

    • #9
  10. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    Cyrano: This is one of the (very many) situations where the simple, 1D political spectrum fails us. It’s a lot easier to pin those regimes, and differentiate them from other ostensibly “right” or “left” ideologies, on any of the available 2D charts, such as this one.

    Cyrano, thanks for that. In the last couple of years I’ve become friends with David Bergland, who was an old associate of David Nolan, and who was the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee in 1984. I had dinner with David last week and he introduced me to that 2D political chart. It seems like a very useful tool. My reservations about it have to do with nationalism. Libertarianism is generally unsound on nationalism in my opinion. I think a liberal nationalism is not only possible but necessary.

    • #10
  11. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    Western Chauvinist:What made Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan “regimes of the right”? I’m not disagreeing with you (I don’t want to fall into the trap of “if it’s evil, it must be on the left), but what are the common features that put these regimes on the right of the spectrum?

    They were anti market, anti religion, anti democracy, opposed the rule of law, in favor a centrally controlled economy.  So why are they of the right?  Because Lenin said fascism was the last stage of capitalism and we had to make common cause with the Soviets so it was good war time propaganda and it stuck.   If they are of the right, then what on earth does right left mean?    It is clearer with Mussolini and the fascists than with the Nazis, as fascists were all enthusiastic members of the socialist international but broke after WWI proved that nationalism was a far more powerful organizing force than international socialism.     Hitler was his own thing, not really a fascist and not really a national socialist, he just used that small party to rise to power, then killed them all.  Fascism was totally pragmatic.  Nazism was driven by their own unique demons.   Another reason we confuse them was the Spanish civil war, Franco was a catholic conservative and was of the right.   The falangists were anti Soviet, authoritarian got nazi support but were not really fascists.

    • #11
  12. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Dictatorships are more likely to fail when the United States quits propping them up.

    If you have money in a Swiss back account, the U.S. government is going to lean on Switzerland to help change its privacy laws to find it.  If you’re a criminal who is hiding out in Cuba, the U.S. government doesn’t care.  If the Castros have your money, the U.S. government doesn’t care, because it’s on the side of dictatorships.

    According to Humberto Fontova, ever since Obama opened up to the country, political arrests have increased and small-business self-employment has declined.  These results are in harmony with Obama’s preferred policies in the United States.

    • #12
  13. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    I Walton:

    Western Chauvinist:What made Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan “regimes of the right”? I’m not disagreeing with you (I don’t want to fall into the trap of “if it’s evil, it must be on the left), but what are the common features that put these regimes on the right of the spectrum?

    They were anti market, anti religion, anti democracy, opposed the rule of law, in favor a centrally controlled economy. So why are they of the right? Because Lenin said fascism was the last stage of capitalism and we had to make common cause with the Soviets so it was good war time propaganda and it stuck. If they are of the right, then what on earth does right left mean? It is clearer with Mussolini and the fascists than with the Nazis, as fascists were all enthusiastic members of the socialist international but broke after WWI proved that nationalism was a far more powerful organizing force than international socialism.

    That is a theory I have had for a long time too.

    Communism was an “international” movement only so long as the Soviets maintained unquestioned control. Tito noticed this first among the Communist satellites, and Yugoslavia became “non-aligned” as a result. That was bad enough, but then Mao noticed too …

    • #13
  14. SEnkey Inactive
    SEnkey
    @SEnkey

    Great post.

    I read an interesting article the other day about the 30% rule in wars. To briefly summarize wars tend to start when states have a lot of young men (18-45) or have a declining amount but their rivals are rising in that area. These wars then drag on until 30% of that category have been killed. I think the take away from the essay was that the Middle East is about to go to hell and we should stay out of it.

    Cuba is unique, it is an island and as such receives quite a bit of protection from the freedom of the seas which the US provides. Ask yourself, what nation could launch a naval attack on Cuba in our back yard? Impossible. That being the case a hostile takeover  from outside is unlikely.

    We should work to support forces in the country which can cause internal change. I am not going so far as to say that the CIA should engineer a coup, although I am partial to that argument. Only that we should support the factions of democracy and NOT in ANY WAY show support for a brutal, anti-liberal regime.

    Shame on our POTUS. (If in twenty years it turns out I’m wrong and he has cleverly brought about liberal change, then I will take it all back and apologize.)

    • #14
  15. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    I Walton:

    If they are of the right, then what on earth does right left mean? It is clearer with Mussolini and the fascists than with the Nazis, as fascists were all enthusiastic members of the socialist international but broke after WWI proved that nationalism was a far more powerful organizing force than international socialism.

    Perhaps the basic difference, as right/left are understood today is in their defining paragdigms. To grossly simplify:

    The Left thinks all peoples and cultures are basically similar – with the same potential for good, evil and truth – and therefore have more in common with each other than not.  Differences are due to external material factors rather than intrinsic qualities.  What differentiates/defines people in this paradigm is what they do – hence the view that a Zimbabwan waiter will have more in common with an English waiter than an English banker would, and defining people most meaningfully by their economic class.

    The Right thinks that people and cultures are profoundly particular – with very different potentials for good etc.  – and that differences stem from intrinsic qualities. What defines people in this paradigm is what they are –  that English waiter would have more in common with the English banker, and people are most meaningfully defined by their ethnic or cultural identity (including religion and gender roles).

    Each paradigm affects how people understand and respond to immigration, religious diversity, changes to gender roles/definitions of marriage, etc.

    Imho most political or social movements include elements of both world views.

    • #15
  16. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Dictatorships collapse – like bridges – imo because they have no mechanism to accommodate opposition, so they have to keep all opposition suppressed at all times, and there comes a moment when they overextend too far and the house of cards collapses.

    I wonder if overt dictatorships most often “end” due to catastrophic collapse (Ceausescu), by negotiated exit (Pinochet) or by allowing enough democratic activity for plausible deniability while consolidating unelected centres of power (the army in Pakistan and Egypt).

    • #16
  17. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    Zafar:

    I Walton:

    The Left thinks all peoples and cultures are basically similar – with the same potential for good, evil and truth – and therefore have more in common with each other than not. Differences are due to external material factors rather than intrinsic qualities. What differentiates/defines people in this paradigm is what they do – hence the view that a Zimbabwan waiter will have more in common with an English waiter than an English banker would, and defining people most meaningfully by their economic class.

    The Right thinks that people and cultures are profoundly particular – with very different potentials for good etc. – and that differences stem from intrinsic qualities. What defines people in this paradigm is what they are – that English waiter would have more in common with the English banker, and people are most meaningfully defined by their ethnic or cultural identity

    Imho most political or social movements include elements of both world views.

    I think you are speaking of the soft utopian western left.  The Soviets were Russian nationalists and had no illusions about man.    And I’m not sure about our own left.  I do not believe they think people are good, nor that circumstances and environment dictate or that what they do improves peoples lives.  They may have in 1950, but the results are rather obvious by now and the unintended consequences at some point look more like intended consequences.  They get the rents the power and the folks become worse off.

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  18. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    I Walton:

    I think you are speaking of the soft utopian western left. The Soviets were Russian nationalists and had no illusions about man. And I’m not sure about our own left. I do not believe they think people are good, nor that circumstances and environment dictate or that what they do improves peoples lives.

    I didn’t address either of their views of human nature, per se, only whether they thought people and cultures were essentially similar or not – and whether they would respond similarly to the same set of constraints and incentives.

    Re the Soviets – Soviet ideology absolutely incorporated Russian nationalism, but they also saw cultures as similar enough that they proceeded to institute the sovietisation of Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan etc.) – with mixed (but not entirely awful, because look at Afghanistan as a control) results.

    As I said, most ideologies incorporate aspects from both the Left and Right world views, no matter what the official line is, and Soviet ideology was no different.

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