Democracy is under attack in several countries but the recent repression in Russia and Belarus graphically illustrates the importance of accountable governance.

While Alexei Navalny, 44, Russia’s best-known democracy and anti-corruption advocate, struggled for life in a coma in a Siberian hospital after being poisoned, President Vladimir Putin followed his ongoing practice – refusing to voice the opposition leader’s name.

Alexei Navalny (Centre) at a a rally in Moscow. Photo: Wikicommons.

Navalny threatens Putin’s regime because he stands for a peaceful, democratic Russia and is principled, selfless, courageous and charismatic.

European political leaders reacted promptly to Navalny’s critical situation, especially when local officials tried to obstruct his evacuation to a hospital in Germany.

A blogger, Navalny has deployed myriad internet projects to discredit Putin’s use of the television stations he seized for propaganda purposes from 2000 onwards. In 2007, Navalny sought to build a pro-democracy coalition of liberals and nationalists.

Historian Robert Horvath notes that Navalny exposed the methods used by corrupt officials “to embezzle billions of dollars from state-controlled corporations”. He challenged Russia’s authoritarian system and its heavily manipulated elections held to legitimize Putin’s rule. His proposal to vote for anyone but Putin’s Edinaya Rossiya party in the 2011 elections exposed massive electoral fraud and precipitated huge protests.

Alexei Navalny talking about Putin on Stand against Corruption program on Youtube. Photo: Screenshot via Youtube.

Navalny and his Foundation for the Struggle against Corruption have kept a YouTube spotlight on offshore assets and the kleptocrats’ lifestyles. One video in 2017 on the palaces, estates and yachts of then-premier Dmitry Medvedev was viewed 35 million times and caused nationwide protests.

Released from jail in 2013 to compete in Moscow’s mayoral election, Navalny — despite smears by the Kremlin-aligned media — won 27 per cent of the vote. His presidential ambitions were thwarted by his 2013 criminal conviction on fabricated charges, but he’s used his national network of activists to promote a strategy of “intelligent voting” – voting for candidates with the best chance of defeating the ruling party. One notable success in the 2019 regional elections was in Khabarovsk, which is now a hotbed of anti-Kremlin protest.

The world, says Horvath, should recognize Navalny as the embodiment of the possibility of a peaceful, democratic Russia that is a partner and not an adversary of the West.

Vladmir Putin. Photo: Wikicommons.

Navalny opposed Russia’s war with Ukraine, arguing that Putin’s overriding motive wasn’t concern for compatriots but fear of the contagion of anti-authoritarian revolution. By exposing the hypocrisy of the Kremlin’s anti-Western propagandists, Navalny reflects the insight of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov about the connection between respect for human rights and international peace. If a democratic Russia ever emerges from Putinism, Navalny will undoubtedly be honoured as its prophet.

Putin’s counterpart in Belarus since 1994 has been President Alexander Lukashenko, re-elected on August 9 in an election which many have denounced as fraudulent.

To achieve his landslide win, Lukashenko manipulated the parliament elected in 2019 with not one opposition member.  One observer of the 2019 election declared: “I will never forget the fear I saw in the eyes of our interlocutors.”

The presidential election result drove more than 200,000 Belarusians onto the streets of Minsk. For their actions in protesting and requesting new elections, they are now being detained and tortured. Lukashenko’s forces locked protesters and journalists in the Red Church. Food supplies from Poland to aid Belarusians were blocked. Two of the executive directors of opposition  leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s newly formed Coordination Council have been jailed.  Opponents have been fired from their jobs and replaced. 

Mass demonstrations in Belarus. Photo: via WeChat.

Tikhanovskaya, now exiled in Lithuania, declared: “We’re not the opposition anymore. We’re the majority now.” Vowing to “stand till the end” in protests over the disputed election and subsequent violence, she told the BBC that if the protest movement stepped back now, Belarusians would be “slaves”.

Democracies around the world must encourage Lukashenko to show respect for human dignity and peaceful demonstrations; free all political prisoners;  cease torture for detainees and cease criminal proceedings against members of the Coordination Council; hold a new free and fair election with local and international observers; and create a new Central Election Committee.

Some feel that Putin favours a new election in Belarus because he’s tired of Lukashenko.  Nobel literary laureate Svetlana Alexievich says: “Perhaps the world will help us, so that Lukashenko starts talking to us. For now, he’s only talking to Putin, so perhaps Putin will help us.”

Democratic government for Russians and Belarusians, meanwhile, remains over the horizon.

David Kilgour

David Kilgour is a former Canadian Secretary of State for Asia-pacific and Member of Parliament. He and David Matas were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for their work opposing human organ harvesting.