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Russian police beat people protesting the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny on January 23, 2021 in Moscow. Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images)

Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, sick with cough and fever, was transferred to the hospital department of remote penal colony where he is imprisoned.

Navalny landed in jail after legal issues that began in 2019, when he was arrested for “leading an unauthorized protest”. In 2020, while on parole for this crime, Navalny was poisoned in an apparent assassination attempt linked to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

In critical condition, Navalny was transported to Germany for emergency medical treatment. In February 2021, a Russian court ruled that the trip to Germany was a violation of parole and sentenced Navalny. to three years in prison.

The decision infuriated Russians and prompted thousands of people to demonstrate. National events disparate opposition groups united in one movement that challenges the 20-year reign of President Vladimir Putin. Now Navalny’s current poor health is again galvanize the demonstrators.

If you persecute Navalny energizes the opposition against Putin, is this a faux pas of the Russian leader?

As an international lawyer and professor of human rights, I have found that sometimes, strong tactics of autocratic leaders trigger a reaction that ends up overthrowing their regime. Often, however, repressive tactics such as detention, torture and prosecution help autocrats stay in power.

Political prisoners

Many historical pro-democracy leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi of India, Aung San Suu Kyi from Myanmar and the United States Martin Luther King jr., were arrested or imprisoned. In such cases, political repression mobilized – rather than destroy – their movements.

Political prisoners, in particular, can turn into international celebrities who rally people around their cause.

South Africa is an emblematic example.

Imprisoned for 27 years, Nelson Mandela became the face of an anti-apartheid movement that evolved from its South African roots the biggest international campaign for a regime change in history. Anti-apartheid groups around the world have come together to exploit punitive economic tactics, such as boycotting South African products, and putting pressure on their governments to apply sanctions.

Eventually, South African leaders bowed to international demands, releasing Mandela in 1990. Mandela was elected president, inaugurating the end of the most racially oppressive system in the world.

Mandela holds his right hand in the air, next to a judge

The example of Belarus

The autocrats of the 21st century are not like the dictators of the past. Most now claim legitimacy through rigged elections, which is why votes in authoritarian countries are often accompanied by repression.

Last August, the Belarusian autocrat Alexander Lukashenko – in power since 1994 – faces an unprecedented electoral challenge. It opposition leaders jailed and rival candidates excluded of running. The elections have taken place, and Lukashenko won a landslide victory.

But his only opponent remaining in the presidential race, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was so popular that neither she nor the Belarusian people bought their victory. Widespread protests erupted demanding the ouster of Lukashenko.

Lukashenko – an ally of Putin – repressed again, including with brutal police violence. Tikhanovskaya went into exile.

Far from stifling popular anger in Belarus, recent research shows that the violent repression of demonstrations by the regime mobilized many people. Protesters plan to repeat their demonstrations soon.

Women in red stand in the snow, fists in the air, with photos of other women

Women in red stand in the snow, fists in the air, with photos of other women

Yet Lukashenko remains in power. In large part, this is because many of the country’s elites and key institutions – like the security services and the courts – remain loyal to it.

The most successful autocrats don’t just use repression to stay in power. They also retain control through a loot system and corruption that helps those who protect their power.

International condemnation

Putin is a master of both repression and corrupt negotiations – both so notorious that the United States has created new ways to punish such behavior.

A few years after the death of a corruption whistleblower, Sergei Magnitsky, in a Russian prison in 2009, the United States adopted the Magnitsky Act, who allow now the president to impose sanctions, including banning entry into the United States, on “any foreign person identified as engaging in human rights violations or corruption.”

Canada, United Kingdom and European Union later passed similar laws.

These laws allow countries to punish repressive leaders, as well as any groups or companies that support their regime, with asset freezes and travel bans. However, they have not yet been used against Putin.

In addition to target and national sanctions, democratic countries have other means of blaming states that violate international law. These include severing diplomatic relations and imposing global control by international bodies like the UN.

Such responses have had limited success by forcing autocratic leaders to respect democracy and human rights.

Take Venezuela, for example. There, President Nicolás Maduro has been in power since 2013, and mass protests against his government began in 2015.

In a series of damning reports, the United Nations has called the killing and imprisonment of protesters by Maduro’s regime “crimes against humanity. »Many countries have imposed increasingly severe sanctions against Venezuela completed many years.

Finally, in 2019, Maduro freed 22 political prisoners and pardoned 110 more.

But in December, Venezuela held elections which once again failed to meet. democratic standards.

Maduro’s party, unsurprisingly, won.

Maduro in a military hat surrounded by soldiers speaks to a microphone with his hand raised

An evolving playground

Mass protest campaigns can and have succeeded in ousting dictatorial rulers, as seen recently in Ukraine. There, demonstrations in 2004 then again in 2014 reoriented the country away from Russia and towards democracy.

History shows that successful protest movements must involve at least 3.5% of the population – including the urban middle class and industrial workers – engaged in coordinated and non-violent tactics such as general strikes and boycotts. It may not seem like a lot of people, but in a country with the size of the population of Russia, it would require more than 5 million people to participate in organized resistance.

Under these circumstances, sanctions and global control can add real weight to a pro-democracy uprising.

But experts fear that the tools of the international community are insufficient given the challenges that authoritarianism presents in the world. Today 54% of the world’s population lives in an autocracy like Russia, Belarus or Venezuela – the highest percentage in 20 years.

Perhaps not by chance, pro-democracy movements are also on the rise. Forty-four percent of countries have seen mass protests for democracy in 2019, compared to 27% in 2014.

As the battle between autocracy and democracy unfolds in Russia, Belarus and beyond, historical defenders of democracy around the world – especially the United States and the European Union – face their own democratic struggles.

This is good news for Putin – and all the more reason for democracy advocates like Navalny to be concerned.

This article is republished from The conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Shelley inglis, University of Dayton.

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Shelley Inglis does not work for, consult with, own stock or receive any funding from any business or organization that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliation beyond her academic appointment.

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