• Written by Shelley Inglis, Executive Director, University of Dayton Human Rights Center, University of Dayton

Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, sick with a cough and fever[1], has been moved to the hospital ward of the remote penal colony[2] where he is imprisoned.

Navalny landed in prison after legal troubles that began in 2019, when he was arrested for “leading an unauthorized protest.” In 2020, while on parole for that crime, Navalny was poisoned[3] in an apparent assassination attempt linked to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

In critical condition, Navalny was flown to Germany for emergency medical treatment. In February 2021, a Russian court said the Germany trip was a parole violation and sentenced Navalny to three years in prison[4].

The ruling infuriated Russians and spurred thousands to protest. The nationwide demonstrations united disparate opposition groups[5] into one movement that is challenging President Vladimir Putin’s 20-year rule. Now Navalny’s current ill health is again galvanizing protesters[6].

If persecuting Navalny energizes the opposition against Putin[7], is it a misstep by Russia’s leader?

As an international legal scholar and professor of human rights, I’ve found that sometimes, strong-arm tactics by autocratic leaders[8] do trigger a reaction that ultimately topples their regime. Often, though, repressive tactics like detention, torture and prosecution help autocrats stay in power.

Political prisoners

Many historic pro-democracy leaders, including India’s Mahatma Gandhi[9], Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi[10] and the United States’ Martin Luther King Jr.[11], were arrested or imprisoned. In these cases, political repression mobilized[12] – rather than destroyed – their movements.

Political prisoners[13], in particular, can turn into international celebrities that rally people around their cause.

South Africa is an iconic example.

Imprisoned for 27 years[14], Nelson Mandela became the face of an anti-apartheid movement that evolved from its South African resistance roots into the largest international campaign[15] for regime change in history. Anti-apartheid groups around the globe coalesced to harness punitive economic tactics[16], such as boycotts of South African products, and to pressure their governments to apply sanctions.

Eventually, South Africa’s leaders folded to international demands, releasing Mandela in 1990. Mandela was elected president, ushering in the end of[17] the world’s most racially oppressive system.

Mandela holds his right hand in the air, next to a judge Mandela is sworn in as South Africa’s first democratically elected president, 1994. Louise Gubb/Corbis Saba/Corbis via Getty Images[18]

The Belarus example

Autocrats in the 21st century aren’t like past dictators. 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 electoral challenge[19]. He jailed opposition leaders[20] and barred rival candidates[21] from running. The elections were held, and Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory[22].

But his only remaining opponent in the presidential race, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was so popular[23] that neither she nor the Belarusian people bought his win. Widespread protests erupted[24] demanding Lukashenko’s ouster.

Lukashenko – a Putin ally – cracked down again[25], including with brutal police violence. Tikhanovskaya went into exile.

Far from quelling popular anger in Belarus, recent research[26] shows the regime’s violent repression of protests mobilized many people. Protesters plan to renew their demonstrations soon[27].

Women in red stand in the snow, holding fists in the air, with pictures of other women Feminists protest dozens of women imprisoned for demonstrating after Belarus’s presidential election, Aug. 9, 2020, Minsk. Atringer/AFP via Getty Images[28]

Still, Lukashenko continues in power. In large part, that’s because many of the nation’s elite and key institutions – like security services and courts – remain loyal to him.

The most successful autocrats don’t just use repression to stay in office. They also retain control through a spoils systems and corruption that aids[29] those who protect their power.

International condemnation

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

A few years after a corruption whistleblower, Sergei Magnitsky, died in a Russian prison in 2009, the U.S. adopted the Magnitsky Act[30], which now authorizes[31] the president to impose sanctions, including barring entry into the U.S., on “any foreign person identified as engaging in human rights abuse or corruption.”

Canada, the United Kingdom and European Union[32] later passed similar laws.

These laws allow countries[33] to punish repressive leaders, as well as any groups or businesses that back their regimes, with asset freezes and travel bans. They have not yet, however, been used against Putin.

In addition to targeted[34] and national sanctions, democratic countries have other ways to reproach states that violate international law. These include severing diplomatic ties and mandating global scrutiny by international bodies like the United Nations.

Such responses have had limited success[35] 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 damning reports, the United Nations has characterized the Maduro regime’s killing and imprisonment of protesters as “crimes against humanity[36].” Many countries have imposed increasingly harsh sanctions on Venezuela[37] over many years[38].

Eventually, in 2019, Maduro released 22 political prisoners[39] and pardoned 110 more[40].

But in December, Venezuela held elections that, once again, failed to meet democratic standards[41].

Maduro’s party, unsurprisingly, won.

Maduro in a military hat surrounded by soldiers speaks at a microphone with his hand raised President Maduro of Venezuela speaks at a military parade, Caracas, April 13, 2019. Lokman Ilhan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images[42]

An evolving playing field

Mass protest campaigns can succeed and have succeeded in ousting dictatorial leaders, as seen recently in Ukraine. There, protests in 2004 and then again in 2014[43] reoriented the country away from Russia and toward democracy.

History shows successful protest movements must involve at least 3.5% of the population[44] – including the urban middle class and industrial workers[45] – engaged in coordinated, nonviolent tactics like general strikes and boycotts. That may not seem like a lot of people, but in a country with the population size of Russia’s, this would require over 5 million people to participate in an organized resistance.

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

But experts worry that the international community’s tools[46] are inadequate given the challenges authoritarianism presents worldwide. Today 54% of the global population[47] lives in an autocracy like Russia, Belarus or Venezuela – the highest percentage in 20 years.

Perhaps not coincidentally, pro-democracy movements are also on the rise. Fourty-four percent of countries saw mass pro-democracy protests in 2019[48], up from 27% in 2014.

As the battle between autocracy and democracy plays out in Russia, Belarus and beyond, the world’s historic defenders of democracy – especially the U.S. and European Union – face their own democratic struggles[49].

That’s good news for Putin – and more cause for democracy advocates like Navalny to be concerned.


  1. ^ sick with a cough and fever (
  2. ^ remote penal colony (
  3. ^ Navalny was poisoned (
  4. ^ to three years in prison (
  5. ^ united disparate opposition groups (
  6. ^ again galvanizing protesters (
  7. ^ energizes the opposition against Putin (
  8. ^ strong-arm tactics by autocratic leaders (
  9. ^ India’s Mahatma Gandhi (
  10. ^ Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi (
  11. ^ Martin Luther King Jr. (
  12. ^ political repression mobilized (
  13. ^ Political prisoners (
  14. ^ Imprisoned for 27 years (
  15. ^ largest international campaign (
  16. ^ punitive economic tactics (
  17. ^ ushering in the end of (
  18. ^ Louise Gubb/Corbis Saba/Corbis via Getty Images (
  19. ^ faced an unprecedented electoral challenge (
  20. ^ jailed opposition leaders (
  21. ^ barred rival candidates (
  22. ^ claimed a landslide victory (
  23. ^ was so popular (
  24. ^ Widespread protests erupted (
  25. ^ cracked down again (
  26. ^ recent research (
  27. ^ plan to renew their demonstrations soon (
  28. ^ Atringer/AFP via Getty Images (
  29. ^ corruption that aids (
  30. ^ Magnitsky Act (
  31. ^ now authorizes (
  32. ^ European Union (
  33. ^ allow countries (
  34. ^ targeted (
  35. ^ limited success (
  36. ^ crimes against humanity (
  37. ^ increasingly harsh sanctions on Venezuela (
  38. ^ many years (
  39. ^ released 22 political prisoners (
  40. ^ pardoned 110 more (
  41. ^ democratic standards (
  42. ^ Lokman Ilhan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images (
  43. ^ again in 2014 (
  44. ^ 3.5% of the population (
  45. ^ urban middle class and industrial workers (
  46. ^ worry that the international community’s tools (
  47. ^ 54% of the global population (
  48. ^ mass pro-democracy protests in 2019 (
  49. ^ face their own democratic struggles (

Authors: Shelley Inglis, Executive Director, University of Dayton Human Rights Center, University of Dayton

Read more

Metropolitan republishes selected articles from The Conversation USA with permission

Visit The Conversation to see more

Entertainment News

Ny’a: My Musical Journey

It’s been such an amazing musical journey. Starting my career in the late 1990’s and selling over 500,000 copies of my debut album “Embrace” worldwide was the beginning of it all.  It was an incredible start of my career. It was a whirlwind for m...

Ny’a - avatar Ny’a

Pro Tips for Gambling Online

While online gambling sounds like an entertaining thing to spend your afternoons playing, it is also serious business for professional players. Those that take gambling seriously know all the tips and tricks that make a good game. Not only do the...

News Co - avatar News Co

The New Art: Balancing Human and Synth in Music Creation

It’s a great time to be alive for indie music makers! There are many of us, maybe including you, who are creating good music out there, armed with nothing but our own ingenuity and the few dollars in our shallow pockets. But what’s the best way to ...

Angela Predhomme - avatar Angela Predhomme

An unstoppable force in indie R&B music since her re-emergence in 2015, Ny’a releases “Waiting”

An unstoppable force in indie R&B music since her re-emergence in 2015, Ny’a has topped the World Indie and Euro Indie Charts countless times, hit the R&B Soul Chart and Club Music Chart Top 20 and became the first artist since Janet Jack...

News Co - avatar News Co

An Aussie Band Breaks Into The US Music Market

AN AUSTRALIAN BAND’S STEPS TAKEN TRYING TO BREAK INTO THE US MARKET By skinsNbones The steps skinsNbones have taken as a band trying to break into the music market haven’t been taken in the traditional Australian way. We didn’t have the opportun...

News Co Media - avatar News Co Media


After a difficult year fraught with fear, anxiety and personal and sociopolitical struggles, nothing has the power to soothe our collective souls – or coincides as perfectly with our renewed sense of hope – than a heartfelt, blissfully beautiful love...

News Co Media - avatar News Co Media

Metropolitan Business News

Essential Tips for Developing Corporate Websites

The corporate industry, just like the others, is experiencing a massive technological revolution. Organizations have changed their marketing criteria by embracing the internet. Therefore, do not be ...

News Co - avatar News Co

How to Make a Personal Injury Claim for Minors

As a parent, you want to make sure your child is always safe. But as much as you want to keep him under your watch, it is impossible to be there for him all the time. When he is out there attendin...

News Co - avatar News Co

Dress for Success - Style Essentials for Every Businessmen

Did you ever glance at a person in passing and instantly think, “Wow, they must be successful”? It seems like the rich and successful people always stand out from the crowd without even trying, ...

Diana Smith - avatar Diana Smith

Why use Google Adwords?

Google ads, previously known as Google AdWords is one of the best and most effective ways to advertise your business online. According to data released by Google, over 5.5 billion searches are made ...

News Co Media - avatar News Co Media

Perfecting Web Design For A Health-Based Website

These days, when it comes to understanding what we put into our bodies, we are more focused than ever. It seems that everywhere we look, there is another health benefit, product, or trend on the...

News Co Media - avatar News Co Media

3 Realistic Reasons Why Physical Offices Are (Almost) Dead

Nowadays, more and more businesses are trying to find alternatives to traditional offices. For many years, brick and mortar offices have been at the heart of a company’s life. But work environme...

News Co Media - avatar News Co Media

Writers Wanted

News Co Media

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion