Sean Gallup/Getty Images
For proof that geography and relative powerlessness are no barriers to a bright future, it is hard to top present-day VilniusSean Gallup/Getty Images
Navigate to News section

The Congress to Free the World

In Vilnius, an increasingly marginalized group of activists gathered to oppose autocracy

Armin Rosen
January 10, 2023
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
For proof that geography and relative powerlessness are no barriers to a bright future, it is hard to top present-day VilniusSean Gallup/Getty Images

The November clouds in Lithuania resemble an endless pour of ashen concrete, with the time of day marked through the soft brightening and darkening of a sun-free sky. The weather probably isn’t all that different in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, or the Belorussian capital of Minsk, both of which are about two and a half hours’ drive from Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. Squeezed between Europe’s last two dictatorships is a country of 2.8 million, a member of NATO, the European Union, the Schengen zone, and the eurozone.

Lithuania is a former Soviet republic where liberal modernity achieved a rapid and apparently total victory after the empire’s 1991 collapse—a small and once-vulnerable country that, after centuries of conflict and foreign domination, finally vaulted itself into the happy, democratic, post-historical stratosphere. For proof that geography and relative powerlessness are no barriers to a bright future, it is hard to top present-day Vilnius, a characteristically European cityscape of cafes and cobblestones, where the now-emptying churches were refurbished and reopened after 1991, a proud late-’90s reconstruction of the Italianate palace of the grand dukes of Lithuania gleams over the old city’s central square, and Ukrainian flags are almost never out of view.

But the country’s triumphs are an accomplishment forged in a different era. In early November, I was one of the only journalists on hand for the launch of the World Liberty Congress (WLC), a three-day gathering of dissidents from around the world held at a hotel complex just outside the Vilnius city limits. The 150 activists on hand came from over 60 countries and liberation movements. Many were exiles; about half have been political prisoners. On the first day of the conference—which was held under Chatham House rules, prohibiting me from directly quoting or even identifying anyone without their permission—activists from each country gave a brief presentation to a plenary session which included “observers” from various human rights organizations and governments.

What followed were bold promises that regimes would be toppled from the insides of prison cells, dire claims of worsening oppression, and warnings that countries that seemed to be on an encouraging path had in fact never been worse. Stories of unfathomable personal courage also contained a planet’s worth of suffering: Children kidnapped, bodies dismembered, years and lives stolen in prison. A cruel and seemingly permanent dictatorship had fallen well within living memory right where we were sitting, and yet the distance between this well-meaning assembly and the actual overthrow of even a single one of the world’s tyrants felt impossibly vast.

A Lithuanian demonstrator stands in front of a Soviet Red Army tank during the assault on the Lithuanian Radio and Television station in Vilnius on Jan. 13, 1991. Soviet troops opened fire on unarmed civilians in Vilnius, killing 13 people and injuring 145 others.
A Lithuanian demonstrator stands in front of a Soviet Red Army tank during the assault on the Lithuanian Radio and Television station in Vilnius on Jan. 13, 1991. Soviet troops opened fire on unarmed civilians in Vilnius, killing 13 people and injuring 145 others.STF/AFP via Getty Images

Why are autocrats so deeply entrenched now? The fashionable idea that the world’s dictators have been helped along by the decline of democratic values in the West doesn’t quite track, even if one accepts the premise that democracy is under threat from within. President Joe Biden has made “democracy” his catchall objective in both domestic and foreign affairs, yet he has relaxed sanctions on both Iran and Venezuela, reversing the policies of his illiberal predecessor in the White House. Poland, once in danger of EU sanction over its right-wing government’s rejection of union-mandated legal structures, has been at least as supportive of Ukraine as Germany or France, and probably even more so.

Instead, autocrats have become adept at gaming Western institutions and even entire societies to ensure their own political insulation. Consider the nasty spectacle of Qatar’s World Cup, TikTok’s popularity in the United States, or Russia’s stranglehold over European energy markets, to name just a few examples of the durable links between democratic and nondemocratic societies. These connections are always a key reason that autocratic regimes are able to hang on for so long, but they aren’t always enough. The Soviet Union and its satellites fell despite those regimes’ success in obtaining loans, economic aid, and even mild political support from across the democratic world.

The struggle against communism wasn’t as lamely professionalized as the modern human rights effort, which is more an industry than a movement.

One major difference between the regime-toppling momentum of the late 1980s and our current moment is that the struggle against communism wasn’t as lamely professionalized as the modern human rights effort, which is more an industry than a movement. Today, vaguely foreign policy-themed do-gooders follow a pipeline from Harvard’s Kennedy School to the State Department to the International Crisis Group, or maybe from SAIS to a U.N. agency to a consulting firm. A lack of meaningful accomplishments never seems to encumber their professional rise. Eschewing more pragmatic and inevitably power-based notions of how and why political orders change, this class trades on airy abstractions like “international law,” “civil society,” “sustainability,” and “peacebuilding,” treating them not as idealistic constructs that could guide receptive societies toward more humane political arrangements, but as real and concrete objectives unto themselves, the necessary origin points for a similarly vague yet nonnegotiable concept called “democracy.”

This professional class ostensibly exists to support would-be regime-changers. But it remains unclear what they’ve really done to help them, or whether they’d even know what to do if they had the chance. Instead, the 21st-century human rights community has left a trail of cooptation and moral compromise—see Amnesty International’s obsession with Ukrainian war crimes and alleged Israeli “apartheid,” China’s and Cuba’s membership on the U.N. Human Rights Council, or even the ACLU’s defense of government-coerced speech and race quotas in college admissions in the United States.

Fortunately, the idea that these graduate degree-wielding technocrats have superior moral and political judgment is exerting less and less pull these days. In the closing plenary session in Vilnius, Mark Sabah, an activist and consultant who helped advance the passage of the Magnitsky Act and who is currently the director for U.K. and EU advocacy and public affairs at the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong, argued that the existing international models for advancing human rights were on the verge of failure. “The U.N. is great at bringing countries together, but it’s bringing the wrong countries together,” he said. “The U.N. is not in our interest any longer.” Governments and legacy NGOs could no longer be trusted either. “‘We’ll put an inquiry’ means ‘we’re doing nothing,’” he said. “Believe it or not, there are NGOs that take money from bad people and then lecture on human rights.”

Now, thanks to the WLC, assembled activists have a new chance to “bypass institutions and governments to work together and back each other up.” The congress presented “an opportunity to do something different.” What this “something different” will shape out to be, and how much of a change it can really make, is still an open-ended question. But there is little ambiguity about what the organization stands for. As the Iraqi-born libertarian activist and Ideas Beyond Borders founder Faisal Saeed Al Mutar explained to me in Vilnius, “this group has a very clear definition of what’s good and what’s bad. Freedom is good, authoritarianism is bad.”

The defeat of authoritarian dictatorships is a deliberately narrow goal, albeit one that has been achieved through a wide range of violent and nonviolent means over the years. This is likely why the WLC has refrained from issuing any direct instructions to activists so far. Instead, it became apparent to me that the point of the conference was to launch a permanent organization, and to give activists a chance to make requests that the organizers could communicate to potential donors. What would Egyptians and Nicaraguans need in order to raise the profile of political prisoners in their respective countries? What could Cubans and Belorussians teach each other about how to withstand a police interrogation? Did Venezuelans who used bitcoin as a hedge against inflation and state control of the banking system have anything to teach Iranian protesters?

At the final session, it was announced that 100 future activist trainers would themselves be trained at an event in Zambia in 2023, the first step toward a global “freedom academy” that organizers hope will reach 3 million people. A 21-member global council of activists from each region had been formed before the congress even ended. Africa had been slightly late in submitting its members: Shortly after the event wrapped, former Caracas mayor and leading Venezuelan opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez showed me their list of names, written on a sheet of notebook paper.

Lopez launched the WLC alongside Gary Kasparov, the chess champion turned anti-Putin stalwart, and Masih Alinejad, the Brooklyn-based Iranian journalist and anti-compulsory hijab activist who was the target of an assassination plot last year. That all three of them are exiles exposes the potential limitations of the global dissident group they envision—in Vilnius, it was often unclear which of the activists on hand had any real profile inside their own countries, or which political, ideological, or identitarian factions they belonged to. But the project is based on the hope that a global network can generate the kinds of ideas and relationships whose impact can’t immediately be seen. The experimental spirit of the gathering helped explain why there were almost no other journalists on hand. The activists had no cameras or public to perform in front of, and could work outside of the distorting scrutiny of the media. I was more than willing to feel like an interloper, even if my conversations with former political prisoners and active-duty diplomats were unusable in anything I wrote.

“The big risk with such a diverse group is that you can go down the particular aspects of each story,” Lopez explained to me in an on-record interview after the conference wrapped up. This had been, he said, “the first gathering with this narrow focus of freedom fighters against autocratic regimes.” Lopez is a spry 51 years old, with large brown eyes and dignified waves of silvering hair—he has the look of a gracefully aging actor, or of someone in a line of work where he has no choice but to keep himself looking and feeling young. Between 2014 and late 2020, he spent four years in solitary confinement in a Venezuelan military prison, two years under house arrest, and a year living in the Spanish Embassy in Caracas, which he secretly fled in October of 2020, eventually reaching the United States. There is much in his recent life experience that could potentially reveal where the outer limits of human sanity truly lie, but he exudes miraculously little despair or exhaustion. In prison, Lopez said, he had one window, which looked out onto a nearby tree. “For years I was able to contemplate an eagle’s nest,” he said. Then he smiled and pulled up his dress shirt, showing a tattoo of an eagle taking off from his midriff.

I asked Lopez about the mistakes he hoped the WLC would avoid making. “I … know what doesn’t work about activism,” Lopez said, recalling the millions who flooded Caracas to protest the regime in 2014, a movement that he helped lead. This was a successful protest, an expression of the popular will that permanently delegitimized dictator Nicholas Maduro’s autocratic political order. In contrast, “activism supported by development agencies is mostly about community organizing and development projects,” he said, and “not necessarily to bring about freedom.” In Lopez’s view, external groups “push their own ideological agenda.” High-profile NGOs sometimes don’t care about activists until they are in prison, and even then they sometimes stop caring. Amnesty International had once named Lopez a “prisoner of conscience.” But, he said, “I was very surprised how Amnesty took away [Russian dissident Alexi] Navalny’s condition as a prisoner of conscience” (a decision the organization later reversed).

Lopez said he didn’t think legacy human rights and multilateral organizations provided “a platform of bringing people together who are in the line of the struggle.” And there was a more fundamental problem with the old approach, too: It was long on talk and procedure, short on action. “Asking for permission to have democracy is not gonna give you democracy, man,” Lopez explained.

The conference in Vilnius mostly consisted of small workshops and working groups, which provided attendees the chance to learn a few of the finer points of organizing and advocacy. There was one important factor missing, although it is so mysterious, so seemingly arbitrary, and so poorly understood that the WLC’s organizers can’t be blamed for omitting it.

The success of anti-regime movements is highly correlated with their ability to win the support of the American public or the American power structure. Perhaps the most successful dissident of the 21st century, Ahmed Chalabi, used an ingenious mix of charisma and outright deceit to draft the CIA and U.S. military into his quest to unseat Saddam Hussein. Decades of advocacy from an unlikely coalition of American evangelical Christians and human rights activists brought South Sudan’s war for freedom to the attention of the first George W. Bush administration, which helped broker a decisive independence referendum for the future failed state. Libyans overthrew Moammar Gadhafi with the help of U.S. airstrikes. In contrast, the war to topple Syria’s Bashar Assad failed in part because Barack Obama and the American public concluded that the Libya intervention had been a pointless mistake and that the mass slaughter and displacement of Syrians wasn’t their problem.

The success of anti-regime movements is highly correlated with their ability to win the support of the American public or the American power structure.

Venezuela’s crisis has also been shaped by wild shifts in American attention. Following the fraudulent reelection of Maduro in 2018, President Donald Trump and the U.S. government openly pressed for the Venezuelan dictator’s ouster. But the U.S. pressure campaign was powerful, in part, because it was bipartisan—the Trump White House recognized Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president; so did Nancy Pelosi. This bipartisanship, unusual for a major foreign policy issue during Trump’s presidency, revealed just how successful Venezuelan exiles had been in pressing their case in America.

As Lopez explained to me, it “took a while” for the anti-Maduro movement to win the argument within the United States. “Until 2014, a majority of Venezuelan people said in open polls that [their country] was a democracy,” he noted. But that year, mass protests broke out against the regime, Lopez was arrested, and millions fled from an unprecedented wave of dysfunction and repression. As a result, Lopez said, “We had the first political exiles. We had voices in D.C. interpreting what was happening with the protests.” These exiles came to understand the necessity of appealing to both sides of the deepening American political divide. Freedom in a given country has to “be an issue that builds bridges,” Lopez said, although reaching the U.S. public also meant making Americans “understand that autocracy is at the root of things people care about” and that dictatorships like Maduro’s created chaos that Americans themselves would eventually pay for.

The Venzeulans’ political victory in the United States was short-lived. The Biden administration has eased sanctions on Venezuela, most recently in late November, in part to offset any contraction in global energy supplies related to Western efforts against Russia. Informed observers believe there was a brief window in which Trump could have been convinced to collapse the Maduro regime through either military or covert means, but the moment is long gone. In time, it will become clear whether the lack of a Venezuelan Chalabi actually helped the long-term cause of freedom and stability in the country—or whether Venezuela’s tragedy furnishes additional proof that struggles for freedom actually hinge on the unpredictable personalities and internal currents that shape the decisions of the world’s sole superpower.

If American arms, markets, and popular sentiments are actually the leading factor in whether Venezuelans, Iranians, or Chinese live in freedom, then the outlook for the world’s dissident movements looks muddled. A theory of freedom centered on American actions has a host of dark implications: It means that movements against dictators only matter insofar as they can shape opinions in a faraway country whose leaders and citizens can never seem to decide how responsible they are for what happens in the rest of the world. Even worse, it would mean that idealism has little real force, and that beliefs in the inevitable triumph of justice distract from the power dynamics that determine how, and whether, the world’s people live.

There’s no template for what really works to bring down dictators and secure the messy aftermath—the U.S. government’s record, while better than that of Yale-educated NGO employees, is notably mixed in this department. Whatever the WLC ends up accomplishing, at least there’s one organization that realizes the necessity of trying something new.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.