Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Alexei Navalny is Russian for “ domestic enemy number one ”

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In 1976, a year after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for having been “spokesperson for the conscience of humanity”, Andrei Sakharov was classified by the KGB as “the number one internal enemy”.

Alexei Navalny, Russian opposition activist stopped on his return to Moscow on Sunday, may not possess the same justice as Sakharov, the most famous Soviet dissident. But there is no doubt about his courage. Or that today’s Kremlin sees him as its greatest domestic enemy. As with the nuclear scientist half a century ago, the Russian government’s treatment of Mr. Navalny has only elevated his status as a symbol of repression.

Sakharov’s cruel repression came to symbolize the moral bankruptcy of the Soviet system and helped galvanize Western opinion, especially European opinion, against him. It would be naive to think that Mr Navalny’s treatment will have a similar effect. The Cold War has long been over, and most Western capitals have interests other than fighting Russian aggression.

But just as the KGB was worried about Sakharov’s impact, Russian President Vladimir Putin fears that Navalny may mobilize public opinion against his increasingly autocratic regime. Russia is due to hold parliamentary elections in September, and Mr. Navalny and his fellow activists have mounted surprisingly successful local election campaigns. They are rallying support for any candidate who can defeat the incumbents of Mr Putin’s ruling party, which has suffered a decline in popularity to record levels in recent months.

How else to explain the extraordinary, almost outlandish measures taken by the Russian authorities to prevent Mr Navalny from enjoying a party welcoming supporters on his return from Berlin, where he spent five months recovering from an attempt assassination attributed to the Kremlin. First, riot police tried to drive away supporters and journalists who were waiting in the terminal at Vnukovo airport in Moscow. Then, minutes before his flight from the German capital was due to land, he was hijacked. A snow plow had conveniently stalled on a runway.

“The reception of Navalny by the authorities at the airport is the best proof of their fear of him”, Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center said on twitter. “They themselves inflate the importance of Navalny, turning him into an academician Sakharov.

Mr Navalny’s notoriety was asserted last year, when he was poisoned with a banned chemical weapon during a visit to Siberia. Last month he published a survey which plausibly demonstrated that it was the FSB, the main Russian security service, which had committed the attempted murder. He then humiliated the FSB by posting a recording in which one of its agents was tricked into admitting responsibility.

Until last year’s poisoning, authorities had sought to contain him with harassment, repeated arrests, short detentions and disqualifications. Now they risk locking him up for a long time. When he arrived on Sunday, he was arrested for flouting the terms of a suspended sentence for fraud that he (and the European court of human rights) said is mistaken. On Monday, Mr. Navalny said on Twitter that his summary trial had started at the police station, with only one minute’s notice. He could face three years in prison. Other accusations of embezzlement are pending.

“For the authorities, the way they viewed Navalny changed not so much after his poisoning, but afterwards. . . FSB presentations. He is no longer a petty crook, but an enemy who must be humiliated, crushed, punished, ”said Tatiana Stanovaya of the political consultancy firm R Politik.

This parody of justice is a challenge for Western critics of Mr. Putin, in particular the new US President Joe Biden who wants to rally allies in defense of democracy. His administration will have to persuade European capitals to go beyond ritual condemnation. The key will be German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She held the line on sanctions against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, pushed back French pressure to reestablish ties with Moscow and strongly condemned the assassination attempt against Mr. Navalny. It is now expected to follow through on new economic sanctions as part of an EU-wide package, including a moratorium on the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline carrying Russian gas to Germany. The Navalny affair will also be a test for Armin Laschet, the new leader of Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, who has been rather gentle with Moscow.

The highly visible persecution from the Kremlin risks turning Mr. Navalny into a rallying point for the national opposition. It must be effective if Mr Putin fears it so much. The Russian leader does not seem to care that forgoing due process makes Mr Navalny a symbol of abuses by an authoritarian regime. But the West must do it.



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