Navalny’s Death Highlights a New Global Division on Political Violence

Alexey Gusev | 24 February 2024
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The unexplained death in prison of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is a symbol of global attempts to shift the balance of power toward authoritarian elites everywhere.

Five years before the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the world was shocked by another political murder: the dismemberment of Saudi opposition journalist Jamal Khashoggi in his country’s consulate in Istanbul. While Khashoggi was less famous than Navalny, his brutal killing caused a major chill in relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia, especially when an investigation indicated that the hit had been ordered by none other than Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.

When bin Salman attended a G20 summit a month after Khashoggi’s murder, most world leaders refused to meet with him. He did share a jovial handshake with Russian President Vladimir Putin, however. It was clear the two dictators wanted to pose in front of the cameras to show the world how little they care about the opinion of Western countries.

Half a decade later, nothing has changed. Not a single leader from a non-Western country has condemned Navalny’s death in a Russian prison. Instead, the issue of whether political murders—and political violence in general—is acceptable if it’s carried out in the interests of protecting a nation’s sovereignty is becoming a new global dividing line.

The locations of gatherings in memory of Navalny were very telling. There were dozens of vigils in European and North American cities, as well as in Israel, Argentina, and even South Korea. But police broke up a gathering in Istanbul, while in Dubai—which has the biggest Russian diaspora in Asia—nothing took place at all. This is explained both by the typical profile of Russians who have moved to Dubai (wealthy and often apolitical) and by the local political system, which prohibits protests and demonstrations.

The post-Soviet space was just as divided: there were large vigils for Navalny in Armenia and Georgia, but nothing in Central Asia. There are quite a lot of anti-war, opposition-minded Russian emigres in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, but local authorities would be unlikely to allow demonstrations. They are not only afraid of angering their northern neighbor, but are also inherently similar to the Kremlin dictatorship, despite their multi-vector foreign policies. While they may court Western investment, they have zero sympathy for the dead Russian opposition leader.

The division of the post-Soviet space into a broadly pro-European Armenia and Georgia and neutral Azerbaijan and Central Asia reflects a global trend in which countries either accept Western political values or demonstratively reject them. This division is only becoming more stark: after the recent war in the disputed South Caucasus region of Nagorno-Karabakh, for example, Armenia replaced its long-time ally Russia with ideologically closer Western allies, while authoritarian Azerbaijan has seen relations with Europe deteriorate—a trend it explains by the need to defend itself against threats to its sovereignty.

Increasingly, the capacity of a state to commit sovereign political violence is becoming a marker of the fight against “Western neocolonialism.” A growing number of regimes seem to believe that a state is only really sovereign if it can kill undesirable citizens—including on foreign soil. As far as Russia is concerned, it’s enough to recall the recent unsuccessful attempt by its authorities to extradite the rock group Bi-2 from Thailand, the attempted assassination of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the UK in 2018; and the killings of former Chechen rebel commanders in Berlin and multiple Arab countries.

A similar approach is even being taken by some democratic states that appear to be drifting toward “nationally oriented policies.” India’s security services, for example, recently killed the leader of Sikh separatists in Canada. Just as with Khashoggi, this has caused a deterioration in relations between the two countries.

In this context, Navalny’s death is more than a consequence of an increasingly repressive Russian regime. As the epitome of political violence, it will become a symbol of global attempts to shift the balance in favor of the increasingly powerful elites of authoritarian countries. These people do not just see human rights activists as an obstacle in the battle for personal power, but as allies of foreign enemies who are easier to destroy than their distant patrons.

Indeed, authoritarian elites view the entire concept of human rights in approximately the same way they do “gender neutral toilets” (an oft-repeated bugbear of Putin’s): i.e., as an alien value that is promoted by Western propaganda and designed to exert a pernicious influence over people’s minds. In a telling moment, the governor of Russia’s western exclave of Kaliningrad recently criticized its most famous son—the Enlightenment-era German philosopher Immanuel Kant—as the ideological foundation of the current “Western aggression” against Russia.

Of course, that is precisely the narrative peddled by Russian propaganda. But it’s also how pro-Western opposition groups, human rights activists, and recipients of international grants are seen in Turkey, Hong Kong, and a growing number of Asian countries, including some former Soviet nations. If Navalny’s supporters had gathered for a protest in Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent, Hong Kong, or Dubai, they would have been detained—not so much out of solidarity with the Kremlin as for ideological reasons.

One of the main impediments to states seeking to reclaim their national sovereignty and throw off the fetters of neocolonial globalism is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the United Nations in 1948. The Russian regime is not only seeking to ignore this document, or indeed assert that it is secondary to Russian law. Instead, the Kremlin wants to trump it using Russian mob rules. It’s mob rules—not laws—that explain the deaths of Navalny and the mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, who died in a mysterious plane crash after his failed 2023 insurrection.

A good analogy is Sharia law in Islamic countries where religious rules are considered to outweigh civil law. These ideas are a potent antithesis to Western influence: what is being rejected is not only international treaties, but the very principles of the rule of law.

Alexey Gusev is a sociologist at Hertie School of Governance (Berlin).

This article was originally published on Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.