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For Vladimir Putin and other autocrats, ruthlessly suppressing the opposition is often a winning way to stay in power

Police arrest a demonstrator at a demonstration in Moscow in support of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, who fell ill while in prison and is now hospitalized. Alexander Demianchuk TASS via Getty Images Alexei Navalny, Russia’s top opposition leader, is emaciated, hospitalized and reportedly close to death after developing fever and cough in the remote penal colony where he is imprisoned. Navalny also went on a week-long hunger strike to protest the government’s refusal to let outside doctors treat him in prison. Navalny’s troubles began in 2019 when he was arrested for “leading an unauthorized protest”. In 2020, while on probation for that crime, Navalny was poisoned in an apparent assassination attempt linked to Russian leader Vladimir Putin. In critical condition, Navalny flew to Germany for emergency medical treatment. He survived the poisoning. But in February 2021, a Russian court ruled that the trip to Germany was a violation of parole. He sentenced Navalny to three years in prison. The sentence infuriated the Russians and prompted thousands of people to protest. The nationwide demonstrations have united different opposition groups into a single movement that is challenging President Vladimir Putin’s 20 years of rule. Navalny’s current ill health is galvanizing protesters again and spurring a further government crackdown on the opposition. If Navalny dies, he will further stimulate opposition against Putin. So was persecuting him a political misstep on the part of the Russian leader? As an international law scholar and professor of human rights, I have found that strong arm tactics by autocratic leaders can sometimes trigger a backlash that ultimately overthrows their regime. But often repressive tactics like detention, torture and prosecution help autocrats like Putin stay in power. Political prisoners Many historical pro-democracy leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi of India, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar and Martin Luther King Jr. of the United States, have been arrested or imprisoned. In these cases, political repression mobilized – rather than destroyed – their movements. Political prisoners, in particular, can turn into international celebrities who rally people around their cause. South Africa is an iconic example. Imprisoned for 27 years, Nelson Mandela has become the face of an anti-apartheid movement that has evolved from its South African resistance roots into the largest international campaign for regime change in history. Anti-apartheid groups around the world have teamed up to exploit punitive economic tactics, such as boycotting South African products, and to pressure their governments to enforce sanctions. Eventually, South African leaders bowed to international demands, releasing Mandela in 1990. Mandela was elected president, ushering in the end of the world’s most racially oppressive system. Mandela was sworn in as South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994. Louise Gubb / Corbis Saba / Corbis via Getty Images The example of Belarus 21st century autocrats are not like 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, Belarusian autocrat Alexander Lukashenko – in power since 1994 – faced an unprecedented election challenge. He imprisoned opposition leaders and prevented rival candidates from running. The elections took place and Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory. But her only remaining opponent in the presidential race, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was so popular that neither she nor the Belarusian people bought her victory. Widespread protests have erupted calling for Lukashenko’s ouster. Lukashenko – an ally of Putin – has repressed again, even with brutal police violence. Tikhanovskaya went into exile. Far from suppressing popular anger in Belarus, recent research shows that the regime’s violent crackdown on protests has mobilized many people. Protesters plan to renew their demonstrations soon. Feminists in Minsk protest against dozens of women jailed for demonstrating after the presidential elections in Belarus in August. 9, 2020. Atringer / AFP via Getty Images However, Lukashenko continues in power. In large part, this is due to the fact that many of the nation’s key elites and institutions, such as the security services and the courts, remain loyal to him. The most successful autocrats don’t just use repression to stay in office. They also maintain control through a system of spoilage and corruption that helps those who protect their power. International condemnation Putin is a master of both repression and corrupt agreements, so well known to both that the United States has created new ways to punish such behavior. A few years after the 2009 death of bribery whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian prison in 2009, the United States adopted the Magnitsky Act, which now authorizes the president to impose sanctions, including a ban on entry to the United States, on ” any foreign person identified as involved in the abuse or corruption of human rights. “Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union have subsequently passed similar laws. These laws allow countries to punish repressive leaders, as well as any groups or businesses that support their regimes, with asset freezes and travel bans. However, they have not yet been used against Putin. On April 15, the Biden administration significantly expanded existing sanctions against Russia, adding new restrictions on the ability of US institutions to deal with Russian sovereign debt. The new sanctions appear to be aimed at increasing economic pressure on Putin and calling for similar measures from allies. In addition to employing targeted and national sanctions, democratic countries have other ways to berate states that violate international law. These include the severance of diplomatic ties and the global oversight mandate from international bodies such as the United Nations. Such responses have had little success in 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 overwhelming reports, the United Nations called the regime killing and imprisoning protesters of Maduro as “crimes against humanity”. Many countries have imposed increasingly harsh sanctions on Venezuela for many years. Eventually, in 2019, Maduro released 22 political prisoners and pardoned 110 others. But in December, Venezuela held elections that, once again, failed to meet democratic standards. Maduro’s party, of course, won. President Maduro of Venezuela speaks at a military parade in Caracas on April 13, 2019. Lokman Ilhan / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images An evolving playing field Mass protest campaigns can be successful and have succeeded in ousting dictatorial leaders, such as recently seen in Ukraine. There, protests in 2004 and then again in 2014 redirected 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 might not seem like a lot of people, but in a country with the population size of Russia, that would require over 5 million people to join an organized resistance. Under these circumstances, sanctions and global scrutiny can add real weight to a pro-democracy revolt. But experts fear that the tools of the international community are inadequate given the challenges that authoritarianism presents around 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 surprisingly, the movements for democracy are also on the rise. Mass pro-democracy protests in 2019 took place in 44% of countries, up from 27% in 2014. While the battle between autocracy and democracy takes place in Russia, Belarus and beyond, the historic defenders of democracy around the world, in particularly in the United States and Europe Union: face their own democratic struggles. This is good news for Putin and more cause for concern for democracy advocates. This is an updated version of a story originally published on April 9, 2021. Written by: Shelley Inglis, University of Dayton. Read more: Navalny returns to Russia and brings anti-Putin politics with him How Alexei Navalny revolutionized opposition politics in Russia, prior to his apparent poisoning Shelley Inglis does not work, consult, own shares or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and did not disclose any relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.