Navalny’s death, a crisis moment for democracy - Hindustan Times

Navalny’s death, a crisis moment for democracy

Feb 29, 2024 10:06 PM IST

For democracy to return, the prerequisite is the democratisers must stay alive.

The death of Russia’s leading opposition activist Alexei Navalny, 47, in an Arctic penal colony brought to a tragic close an idealistic life of non-violent struggle against an entrenched tradition of authoritarianism going back centuries. It was not a coincidence that the harsh Siberian prison where Navalny perished while serving a thirty-and-half-years long sentence had been constructed on the site of Gulag number 501, the notorious labour camp that housed political prisoners during the Communist dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. To rewind further back in time, Navalny met the same fate as thousands of dissidents and rebels who had staged uprisings against the Czarist empire and were subjected to the Katorga punishment system in Siberia since the 17th century.

Rain drops cover a portrait of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.(AP) PREMIUM
Rain drops cover a portrait of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.(AP)

Russia’s political culture of an absolutist State, which brooks little dissent and where rule by law overrides the rule of law, has devoured millions of victims over the ages. President Vladimir Putin, now in his 25th year in power, is only the latest exponent of a model of a strong police State that has forever been associated with Russia. It is this accumulated legacy which ultimately devoured Navalny and put to rest a restless crusader who dared to imagine and mobilise people for a break from the past.

Navalny’s eerie self-confidence and daredevilry to sacrifice life and liberty for the sake of a freer Russia will be memorialised by his sympathisers as heroic and exemplary. But seen in light of Russia’s DNA of resilient authoritarianism and invincible strongmen, he was a dreamer who could be accused of naivete for confronting a system that rarely relents and mostly crushes resistance with an iron fist.

As Navalny’s untimely demise shook the world’s conscience, the pivotal question that haunted observers was: Why did he choose to return from Germany to Russia in 2021 after surviving a debilitating Novichok nerve agent poisoning when he knew it would mean arrest, ill-treatment and certain death? How could an innovative and crafty politician who introduced ideas like strategic voting, unified opposition candidates and catchy online audiovisual messaging to challenge Putin just walk into the jaws of an unforgiving State system? Why not remain abroad and campaign from the safety of Europe to gradually weaken Putin’s vice-like grip? Navalny’s own explanation for his bold return to Russia despite heavy risks was that “I don’t want to give up either my country or my beliefs”, and “If your beliefs are worth something, you must be willing to stand up for them and make some sacrifices”. In his calculus, fear of being reduced to irrelevance in exile overrode fear of being killed.

This kind of agonising choice was not uniquely Navalny’s. It has been a standard feature of the contest between democracies and dictatorships worldwide. The Nobel Prize-winning Chinese human rights activist and political reformer Liu Xiaobo, who died in State custody at the age of 61 in 2017, had been offered a Faustian bargain by the ruling Communist regime to sign a confession of guilt in 2010 while serving an 11-year sentence for subversion of state power, and in return offered freedom to permanently leave the country. As with Navalny, Liu insisted on an unconditional release and decided he would not abandon the country and the cause, come what may. He too paid the price for this bravery or bravado with his life.

Another famous political prisoner of our times, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, spurned similar deals from the military junta while under detention. Like every classic authoritarian ruling clique, the Myanmar junta considered her too dangerous as long as she remained in the country, even under house arrest, and sought to expel her in exchange for freedom. She refused and demanded all political prisoners being released. Later in life, she did compromise with the junta, but it was too good to last. As of today, she has served a cumulative 18 years in detention and is staring at being locked up for a further 27 years over charges of sedition, corruption and election fraud. Now aged 78, with few signs of Myanmar returning to the path of democratic transition, Suu Kyi faces the depressing reality of never realising her dream of a democratic Myanmar during her lifetime.

A rare instance of a triumphant democratiser who did not end up getting martyred was Nelson Mandela of South Africa. In 1985, after completing 21 years in prison, he was offered by the apartheid state to be freed if he undertook to obey the racist regime’s laws and renounce violence. Mandela rebuffed the offer and famously declared to his people, “I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom.” Fortunately for him and for South Africa, destiny saw to it that he would eventually be released in 1990 and become the country’s first democratically elected president. The end of the Cold War, the sustained international sanctions campaign against apartheid, and intensified revolutionary mass movements by ordinary South Africans, worked in his favour.

Today, democracy as a norm and idea is in decline worldwide. The tragedy of Navalny can be interpreted as a manifestation of this new normal. Should democratisers who are struggling under the yoke of oppressive regimes realise this fait accompli, temper their eternal idealism and strike bargains with their tormentors so that they at least live to fight another day?

History reveals that democratisation mostly happens through stop-go negotiated settlements between regimes and opposition groups at opportune moments rather than by sudden revolutionary overthrows. For democracy to return, the prerequisite is the democratisers must stay alive.

Sreeram Chaulia is dean, Jindal School of International Affairs. The views expressed are personal

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