Documents on Democracy

Issue Date July 2024
Volume 35
Issue 3
Page Numbers 165–74
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Massive demonstrations took place in Tbilisi in April and May against the Georgian Dream party’s “Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence.” The law, which entered into force on June 3, requires NGOs and media organizations that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as “agents of foreign influence.” Protesters were met with violent police crackdowns. Luka Gviniashvili, one of the young protesters, recounted the experience in an essay published by Coda, excerpted below:

For us, this law means the difference between having a functioning democracy and existing as a puppet for Russia. It means losing our freedom of speech.

On the morning of April 15, the protests began.

My friends and I have joined the demonstrations every day. . . . I believe that if we can inspire enough people to get out on the streets, we can overwhelm the brutality we are fighting against. For now, the state is fighting back hard, with tear gas, rubber bullets, [a] water cannon, and by simply beating protesters to a pulp. I’m worried things are going to descend into even more violence, though I hope we can avoid it.

On the night of April 30, I put on a gas mask and assigned myself a task: deactivate as many tear-gas canisters as I could. . . .

Things escalated fast that night. Protesters surged onto Tbilisi’s main street, Rustaveli Avenue, and as they did, police unleashed a torrent of tear-gas canisters onto us from the side streets, scattering the crowd. I ran forward into the impact zone, grabbing the canisters and submerging them into bottles of water that I had previously set out. It was a race to get to the canisters before they started spinning out of control.

The police began advancing from the side streets and blasting everyone in the area with [a] water cannon, throwing them to the ground. They didn’t care if they hit protesters or journalists — and they hit both. Officers also beat up anyone they could get their hands on. A no-man’s-land emerged between the protesters and the police. In the buffer zone were journalists — and me. . . .

It was time to build barricades, French style. . . . I started dragging metal barrier fences together and getting people to help. I then told people to gather up trash cans. . . . Five guys started to help me. From that moment on, I was standing in the buffer zone in front of the barricades, directing people like an orchestra conductor. I got them to add umbrellas to the structure — a tactic inspired not by the French, but by prodemocracy protesters in Hong Kong — to protect from the water cannon.

The crowd of police just watched as I directed the resistance. They recorded everything, sussing me out. Then, they mobilized the arresting squad. The police surged forward, grabbing anyone they could — journalists, protesters, they didn’t care. I started to run, but . . . I slipped on the wet ground.

A bunch of masked police jumped on me and began beating me mercilessly. . . . They started hitting the back of my head hard, and all I could do was protect my eyes and curl into the fetal position. They dragged me behind the police line and continued laying into me. Then they surrounded me, taunting me, telling me to hit myself and say that I was a little bitch. My legs were like jelly, and I could barely stand. I did whatever they ordered, desperate, until they threw me into a van. Already, there was a lump the size of a bar of soap on the back of my head, with deep-blue panda rings forming around my eyes.

They hauled me to prison, but it took them six hours to get me inside. There was already a queue of other protesters they’d caught. My captors waited in the van with me, watching Russian TikToks for hours on end. Honestly, that was almost worse than the beating.

The atmosphere inside the cells was desperate. People were silently pacing up and down, their spirits hitting rock bottom. Police were bringing in more protesters all the time, their radios crackling. I was in a cell with three other guys. “They beat me like a dog,” one of them said, showing me a boot print–shaped bruise on his back. I realized we had to get the morale up, fast — and show the guards they couldn’t break us.

We sang all the songs we could think of — “Bella Ciao,” the European anthem, a bunch of Georgian songs. At one point I even sang the Marseillaise. The police told us to shut up. We kept singing, and cracked terrible jokes. . . .

I got out of jail because a lawyer helped me, pro bono. . . . If it wasn’t for her and her organization, I would still be in jail. This Russian law wants to take away our access to human-rights lawyers like her.

Two weeks on, and my concussion is getting better, day by day. The nausea has eased, and the daily headaches are becoming less intense.

I’m back on the streets. At these protests, the energy feels different. There’s a crazy electricity in the air. Everyone is singing, fighting, determined not to lose their country. A lot of the protesters are my age — Gen Z. We don’t remember the chaos and corruption of the 1990s. We’re not worn down, like older people, by decades of protesting. We’re also more savvy than our parents’ generation about fact checking. We don’t just swallow the stream of propaganda that’s fed to us. We’re ready to fight.


Vladimir Kara-Murza is a Russian opposition activist and journalist currently serving a 25-year prison sentence for speaking out against the war in Ukraine. April 11 marked the second anniversary of his arrest; on May 6, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for his articles in the Washington Post. Evgenia Kara-Murza, his wife and an exiled Russian human-rights activist herself, gave this speech to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on April 18. Excerpts follow:

For the last two years since my husband’s imprisonment, my main goal has been to be the strongest voice possible for the people I am proud to call my compatriots. . . .

For the last seven months, Vladimir has been held in the solitary confinement of a disciplinary cell in a maximum-security prison colony in Western Siberia, where he’s serving a 25-year sentence for so-called high treason for five public speeches where he denounced the war of aggression against Ukraine and raised awareness about the ongoing crisis with human rights in Russia. . . .

The regime has brought back the entire arsenal of Soviet-style repressive instruments to eradicate dissent and scare people into silence. Punitive psychiatry, first introduced by then-KGB chairman Yuri Andropov in 1969 to silence dissent, has made its bone-chilling comeback. The use of intimidation and torture by Russian law-enforcement . . . authorities does not even surprise anyone anymore.

Political prisoners with pre-existing medical conditions are routinely deprived of medical care and are repeatedly sent to disciplinary cells on ridiculous grounds and in violation of the Russian law. . . .

Thousands of Ukrainian civilian hostages and kidnapped children are held captive in Russia, often in torturous conditions and in clear violation of the international law.

With independent media banned and blocked, civil society institutions destroyed or under extreme pressure, international observers and rapporteurs consistently denied entry to the country, we really have only a vague idea of the scale of repression in Russia.

Just like in the Soviet times, all those who publicly reject the official narrative are being portrayed by the Russian authorities as criminals, extremists, spies, traitors, or insane people. This is why it is crucially important to maintain a continuous dialogue with oppressed civil society, and support the work of those human-rights organizations, independent journalists, civil society groups, and lawyers who do their best, both inside and outside of the country, to monitor and report on the situation against all odds. . . .

I’m often asked if there is an alternative to Vladimir Putin. Well, you’re watching Vladimir Putin using the powerful Soviet-style repressive state machine to try and destroy that alternative right before your eyes.

The regime targets the most courageous, the most principled, those Russians who risk not only their freedom but very often their lives to show you that Russia can be different. . . .

Hundreds and hundreds of brave people ended up behind bars because their human integrity did not allow them to stay silent in the face of the atrocities committed by the regime. They are the alternative. . . .

Those who are opposing Vladimir Putin’s murderous regime today represent that Russia that Boris Nemtsov and Alexei Navalny fought and died for.

You saw tens of thousands of these people standing for hours in lines across the country, not just in big metropolises, but also far away provincial centers like Novorossiysk or Gorno-Altaysk, to sign the petitions required for the nomination of Boris Nadezhdin, the only candidate who was preparing to run on an antiwar platform.

You saw thousands and thousands of them on 1 March lining the streets to pay tribute to yet another assassinated opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. Under surveillance cameras and in heavy police presence, the crowds defiantly chanted “No to war,” and “Russia will be free.”

You saw thousands and thousands of them turning up at polling stations in Russia and capitals across the world to take part in the Noon Against Putin protest on 17 March.

For as long as Vladimir Putin stays in power, internal repression and external aggression will continue. And the only true guarantee for peace and stability on this continent is a democratic Russia that will respect the rights of its own citizens and live in peace with its neighbors.

If Putin is allowed to destroy that vision of Russia, the free world will be left with no other options but to deal with this decrepit, vile dictator, and him alone.

I call on you to stand with my compatriots who carried the vision of a free and democratic Russia. . . .

And I call on you to send a clear and unequivocal signal to the Kremlin that Vladimir Putin is no longer considered a legitimate ruler of the Russian Federation and will be treated as he should: a usurper, a dictator, and a war criminal wanted by the ICC.

And I would like to finish with my husband’s words: “It is my hope that when people in the free world today think and speak about Russia, they will remember not only the war criminals, who are sitting in the Kremlin, but also those who are standing up to them, because we are Russians, too.”


Toomaj Salehi is a dissident rapper who supported the Woman, Life, Freedom protests and wrote music and social-media posts critical of the government. He was arrested in October 2022 and November 2023, and was sentenced to death on 24 April 2024 in a grossly unjust trial. Afrasiab, a fellow Iranian freedom rapper, published these brief lyrics on May 1 with the hashtag #freetoomaj. Translated excerpts follow:

Enforcing this decree, the century’s biggest mistake
You know well the women’s revolution won’t break, Life, Freedom
Woman, Life, Freedom against tyranny, against war
Our spirit, our determined presence, that’s what I count on

Toomaj today is not a single one alone,
He’s [a] nation that won’t be chained down . . .

This rage won’t fade, it only intensifies
We are the screams of the throats you’ve tried to silence
Toomaj today is not merely one
Day by day, this bravery multiplies

Toomaj shouldn’t spend even a day in jail
Stand by us, say no to executions
Stand by those fighting against the anti-human forces
Your rights, shouted out in all his songs

Toomaj today is not merely one
So think this time before you decide
Until his freedom, Iran remains constantly awake
For he’s the voice of a nation, the son of Iran


On April 25, Portugal marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Carnation Revolution, a bloodless military coup that ended the four-decade dictatorship of Antonio Salazar’s Estado Novo and led to democracy in the country. Mário Soares, known as Portugal’s “father of modern democracy,” served as founder and leader of the Socialist Party, prime minister, and later president. Carl Gershman, founding president of the National Endowment for Democracy, gave a speech commemorating the anniversary and the legacy of Soares at the Estoril Political Forum on June 3. Excerpts appear below:

The mid-1970s [were] not a good time for democracy. The communists triumphed in Vietnam and Cambodia, military regimes had taken over throughout Latin America, Indira Gandhi had suspended democracy in India, and isolationism was on the rise in the [United States]. . . .

It was in that context that Portugal emerged quite suddenly in 1975 as the epicenter of the global struggle for freedom. . . .

Soares lauded the Portuguese people for resisting the Communist threat. When the Communists “were on the brink of occupying the whole state machinery,” he said, “when they controlled the mass media and infiltrated the armed forces . . . and were on the brink of forming a new political police, it was the spontaneous resistance of the Portuguese people who, as by miracle, came out into the streets, and in the streets of Portugal, in the factories, in the schools, and in the fields unanimously struggled to defend the threatened freedom. . . . This was a spontaneous movement,” Soares said, “since the Portuguese people had the experience of fifty years of dictatorship and were not willing to return to a new dictatorship.” He called the solidarity in defense of freedom of the worldwide social democratic movement “the greatest moral and political strength which exists in the world today.” . . .

We must now continue to wage that struggle “with determination. Wherever we do not have freedom and liberty, we must continue to fight for it.” . . .

It was Soares . . . more than anyone, who emphasized the vulnerability of democracy, which he called “a frail and precious flower that needs care and permanent vigilance.” He warned that liberal democracy was no more secure in the triumphal aftermath of the fall of communism than it was in the early 1900s when the delusory optimism of Woodrow Wilson and others about the future of democracy was followed by the carnage of World War I and the subsequent rise of fascist and communist totalitarianism that unleashed a frenzy of unimaginable violence, including the Holocaust.

He spoke as “an old fighter against dictatorship” who had been arrested twelve times under Salazar and been tortured and forced into exile. He said that he belonged to “a generation that learned from experience the value of democracy and the importance of liberty, a generation that knows what it means to be subject to dictatorship and deprived of basic human rights.” He added that “this painful experience of almost half a century makes it a moral imperative for us to fight, day after day, to perfect our democracy” and “to share our experience with the younger generations, so that they can understand that life without freedom makes no sense.”

Soares’ awareness of the unending threat to democracy and his determination to fight for freedom and to defend it wherever it is threatened are what made him the father of Portuguese democracy and a figure of singular greatness. . . .

We are now at a very dangerous historical moment. The world’s autocratic and lawless countries . . . are more united and aggressive than ever before. Among the established democracies, including above all the United States and now including even Portugal itself, a populist and illiberal reaction to accelerating globalization and technological change is gaining momentum. . . .

[T]he legacy of Mario Soares and [his wife] Maria Barroso could point a way forward at this perilous time. They provide a model of vigilance in defense of freedom and devotion to the values of justice and human dignity; of opposition to all forms of dictatorship and oppression; and of humility and empathy combined with the determination to resist demagogy, hatred, and intolerance. It’s an example of simplicity and strength. The challenge will be for the world’s democracies — or at least some of their leaders and others engaged in the political and ideological battle for democracy — to find the wisdom to appreciate their example and the will to follow it.


Since Uganda’s fraudulent 2021 election, many supporters of the main opposition candidate, musician-turned-politician Bobi Wine (whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu), as well as other political activists critical of President Yoweri Museveni’s repressive 38-year regime have been imprisoned. Among them is Sanya Muhydin Kakooza, who has been detained for more than three years without a fair trial. An excerpt from one of Sanya’s court-martial hearings, which was posted on X (Twitter) on May 21, appears in translation below:

Your Honor, Chairman of the Military Court, we implore you to listen to us today. We were arrested for political reasons. We were arrested at the height of the political season. We have been detained for two years.

If supporting Hon. Kyagulanyi is the greatest crime in this country, we are tired of being taken back and forth. We ask you to convict us, so that we [can] serve our sentence. Let us serve a sentence for supporting a person who stood against Dictator Museveni and his clique.

We are struggling for change, it is not for anything else. We are tired. We are suffering. We are being tortured. We supported Hon. Kyagulanyi — that is a fact. . . .

We are children of Buganda. We are struggling to see that Buganda regains its glory. The children of Buganda are rotting in jails. . . .

Some of us are being persecuted because we are Muslims. This government tortures Muslims with impunity. . . .

We are being persecuted because of politics. We want to be freed from detention. If supporting Hon. Kyagulanyi is a crime, let them sentence us so that it is known we are serving a sentence.

We are tired of going back and forth. We are tired. I am called Sanya. You can kill me, but I will not stop struggling for change. Let them free us. Let them free us. This is Museveni’s court. Free us. Free us. Free us.


María Corina Machado is the leader of the opposition Vente Venezuela party, and is one of the most outspoken and critical voices against the regime of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. On May 21, she was presented the Global Courage Award for Truth by the It Takes Courage foundation in Panama City. Her daughter, Ana Corina Machado, accepted the award and gave this speech on her mother’s behalf. Excerpts follow:

It is my mother who should be standing here tonight accepting this esteemed recognition, but she’s been barred from leaving Venezuela for over a decade.

In our country, the fight for freedom comes at an unimaginable cost. My mother’s courage and commitment to defending truth have shaped not just my life, but the lives of millions of Venezuelans. . . .

She was willing to sacrifice her own freedom for the pursuit of freedom of all Venezuelans. If there is one thing that I’ve learned from my mother, it is that courage and truth are our most powerful weapons in the disarmament of evil in this world; that truth is not a tool merely to be used when it is convenient, noncontroversial, or safe; but rather truth is of most importance in the darkest of times, when nobody else dares to speak it, when doing so means alienating yourself from your allies and even risking your own life.

Truth has been my mother’s constant companion throughout her career and her entire life. My mother called the Venezuelan regime a dictatorship and a mafia state when nobody else dared to say it. And for that, she was called an extremist. My mother stood up in the National Assembly . . . and berated Hugo Chávez, telling him that the expropriation of Venezuelan businesses was theft, and for that she was called a radical. My mother spoke to the people of Venezuela about the dignity of hard work in a country filled with words of communism and government handouts, and for that, she was called crazy.

María Corina Machado has not been intimidated by the constant threats on her life and the safety of my family. She stood firm in the National Assembly when she was brutally assaulted and later hospitalized. And she did not change course when she stood alone for many years without allies.

What is unfolding today in Venezuela is unbelievable in many ways. There [are] hundreds and thousands of people filling the streets in every corner of my country, trying to get a glimpse of my mother and hearing María Corina Machado’s speech. It is truly a phenomenon we have never encountered before. The historical turnout in the opposition’s presidential primaries in October seemed unimaginable. Despite all the obstacles that the government imposed, people still showed up. Yet I’m not the slightest bit surprised: Venezuelans have been living under tyranny for decades, marked by humiliation, stripped of freedom and dignity, being fed lies and divisive rhetoric of hatred, and we have said “Enough! Enough.”

María Corina Machado speaks of an existential fight that is much greater than any presidential election. She appeals to the free individual, the human dignity, and the reunification of families. She is replacing humiliation for dignity, division for unity, and suppression for hope. Guided by her courage and truth, she has restored hope to millions of Venezuelan families that have been separated by this crisis, allowing them to envision that day when their children are able to return home once again [to] Venezuela. Our country is facing a moment of reckoning, and María Corina Machado is our beacon of hope.

It takes courage — it takes extraordinary courage — to lead a country to freedom, and as a Venezuelan and her daughter, I will always admire her for that.


On 4 June 1989, university students, workers, and others demonstrating in Tiananmen Square for political and economic reforms were brutally massacred by Chinese troops. Hundreds, if not thousands, were killed, and tens of thousands were arrested in the aftermath. Thirty-five years later, the Tiananmen Mothers, a human-rights group whose children or family members were harmed in the movement, wrote this statement honoring the anniversary. Excerpts, published and translated by Human Rights in China, appear below:

Today, we, the families and relatives of the June Fourth victims, are gathered in Beijing to commemorate the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre. As we gaze upon the photos of our loved ones, our hearts are filled with a mix of grief and anger, and the pain arises suddenly.

We will never forget that day on June fourth, 35 years ago, when your vibrant lives were struck by bullets, crushed by tanks, and snuffed out! The missing people whose remains could not even be found, and whose family members could not wipe the blood from your bodies and bid you a final farewell. These events happened in peacetime. . . . It was too cruel! The injustices were too many to name!

For the past 35 years, we have never been able to forget the sight of you leaving home, and the gunshots in the night sky of Beijing which made us worry that something happened to you when you did not return home on time. We anxiously searched day after day, asking about you at major hospitals and all levels of government offices, tirelessly striving to find you and bring you home. When we finally heard the bad news, our anxious tension completely collapsed. We were heartbroken, devastated. Every family then seemed to live in darkness without light, and some could only shed endless tears. . . .

As we stand here today, looking at the pictures of our loved ones, we feel incomparably sad. We can’t help but ask China’s ruling party and the Chinese government: Do society’s problems have to be resolved by taking the lives of others? Behind every life is their family, their parents, their siblings, their wives, and their children. For the families, the sudden loss of a loved one overnight is like the sky has fallen, and we are unable to accept the cruel truth. As a group of family members and relatives of the victims, we have the right to know the truth about the June Fourth Massacre, how many people were killed, how many people were injured, and how many people were implicated in this massacre that shocked China and the rest of the world. It is the responsibility of the government to give an explanation to society about this tragic incident that is in line with the facts, to publish the names of those who died, to make a public apology in the government’s name, and to return fairness and justice to us.

Thirty-five years have passed, and the authorities remain silent. . . .

The June Fourth Massacre is a historic and tragic event that the Chinese government must face and needs to explain to the people. It cannot be ignored, and there are members of government from that time who should bear legal responsibility for indiscriminately killing innocent people. For 35 years, we have suffered the loss of our loved ones. . . . If the government sincerely addresses this tragedy, it would be the greatest consolation.

Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press