LONDON — Russian political activist Vladimir Kara-Murza says he has been poisoned twice, but he hasn’t let it stop him from championing greater democratic norms, transparency, and less corruption in an increasingly autocratic Russia.
It's why he, like a plethora of pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong to Hungary, has watched President Donald Trump’s challenges to the result of the U.S. election with anger and frustration.
“It’s not just misleading, it’s insulting to draw a parallel and use words like fraudulent and manipulative,” Kara-Murza said of Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that illegal ballots were cast in the election. “Those countries that do have real genuine electoral processes shouldn’t use words like fraud and manipulation carelessly.”
Pro-democracy activists in countries where democracy is coming under pressure or is nonexistent worry that Trump's rhetoric will harm their efforts, make it easier for their leaders to ignore democratic norms and equate any fraud in their own systems with the United States' 2020 vote.
Trump has not provided proof of any fraud despite numerous lawsuits contesting the election results. Even Attorney General William Barr said last Tuesday that there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud during the election, defying the president's ongoing efforts to reverse the results.
Activists and election monitors say Trump’s behavior sends the wrong message. In a report on the election, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors elections in dozens of countries and sent a team of international observers to the U.S., called Trump’s claims “baseless” and said they “harm public trust in democratic institutions.”
In contrast, the organization said that Russia's 2018 election "lacked genuine competition," among other issues, including the fact that a "number of activists who questioned the legitimacy of the election were detained."
The organization's report on the U.S. election, and U.S. officials' insistence that the vote was indeed fair, are still not enough to erase the damage that Trump’s claims have caused, according to pro-democracy activists.
“It’s scary, because we consider the U.S. a first-class democracy where there are checks and balances and high-quality media,” said Eszter Nagy, a former Hungarian diplomat who is now the secretary general of the Union of European Federalists in Hungary, an organization that promotes greater European integration. “Hungary is a small country, and we see the U.S. as a model democracy.”
In the Middle East, activists view the U.S. as more than just an example to emulate. Trump’s continuing insistence that he won the election affects the lives of people in many countries in the region, they say.
“People who have lived under authoritarian rule, it deprives us of the power to argue that democracy is the best form of government,” Madawi al-Rasheed, a founding member of the Saudi opposition National Assembly Party said. Her willingness to speak out against the kingdom’s rulers has made her a persona non grata in her home country.
Instead, Trump's claims have made it easier for autocratic rulers to tell “their own citizens that we are the best stable form of government. They can say, ‘look at turmoil in the U.S., look at how an elected leader could resist leaving office using democratic, legal methods,” she said.
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During Trump’s four years as president, proponents of democracy and human rights have been for the most part overpowered in an international arena that changed radically after the election of 2016. Human rights activists were largely shocked by the administration’s failure to speak out after the gruesome killing of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. Trump's embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un has also been criticized by human rights groups.
The view from Hong Kong is somewhat more complex. China led a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters after months of demonstrations last year against a proposed extradition law. This year, a new national security law raised the risks for those who directly challenge Chinese rule.
The anger pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong feel toward China’s actions there has led many to admire Trump and his administration’s efforts to contain China. However, that approbation has also led many to embrace conspiracy theories floating around in the media and on social media regarding the validity of the U.S. vote, Avery Ng, a pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong, said.
Trump himself has championed conspiracy theories on the election, and retweeted claims that baselessly allege that Dominion Voting Systems, a company that makes voting machines, “deleted” millions of Trump votes.
One of the key aims of authoritarian leaders is to “place doubts and once you do, that creates chaos and uncertainty and instability,” said Ng, who has spent three monthlong stints in jail over the last three years for his activities against corruption and in support of greater democratic freedoms.
As China cracks down harder on pro-democracy activists, Ng’s one message to American voters is not to take democracy for granted.
“If you have some sort of democracy, you have to treasure it, it is not as robust as it may seem. It is quite fragile,” he said.