Supporting the release of the illegally imprisoned Russian oppositionist does not mean promoting him to the presidency.
On February 25, Amnesty International stripped prisoner Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny from a conscience status prisoner. The move was a mistake that undermined the Russians’ struggle against Putinism.
Suppose international attention continues to focus on individuals and not on the protest movement. In that case, it will undermine the entire development of the opposition movement in Russia and absorb the reaction of the democratic response to Putin’s authoritarianism. Colonel and ex-director of the US National Security Council for European affairs Alexander Windman and head of the Human Rights Foundation Garry Kasparov write about this in an article for the Washington Post.
The Russian special services are well aware that it is much easier to discredit and destroy one person than an entire movement. Amnesty International’s decision helped the Kremlin eliminate the Putin regime’s biggest challenge in nearly a decade. Now that Navalny is in jail and protests have been ruthlessly suppressed, the government may decide to make another attempt on Navalny’s life after a failed assassination attempt last year.
February 27 marks the sixth anniversary of the assassination of another Russian opposition leader who fought for a free and democratic Russia, Boris Nemtsov. And this anniversary serves as a sober reminder of the Putin regime’s readiness to destroy opponents shamelessly. When President Joe Biden called Vladimir Putin a “killer,” some called it a provocation. But in fact, it was a precise definition.
Meanwhile, a debate began around Navalny. Some argue that he should receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He has been linked to Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. During this time, others question his personal and political beliefs, especially those related to Ukraine and ethnic nationalism. Praise and careful control are warranted, but they distract from the main point.
Holding this debate now is leapfrogging ahead. Russians can elect a candidate like Navalny as president. But free and fair elections remain a distant dream in Putin’s Russia. The problem today is whether anyone supports or opposes authoritarianism. Supporting Navalny as a political candidate is not a prerequisite for supporting his release from prison. A democratic Russia can also be sustained without it.
Navalny should not have a personality cult in which he is Putin’s Democratic successor. This is an important point, even though leaderless protests are gaining a lot of sympathy among the average Russian. Instead of talking about a power struggle between two people, the opposition leader’s attempted assassination and unfair imprisonment should be interpreted within the anti-authoritarian movement framework.
Navalny’s most significant gift has been the revitalization of anti-authoritarian protests in a country where such actions have historically been difficult to encourage. But suppose a robust democratic front is growing. In that case, the opponent must stand without a job and move forward without Navalny. There is a real possibility that Navalny will die during his prison term. The movement cannot die with it. Otherwise, his return to Russia was in vain.
By focusing on the movement rather than one individual, the West must increase its support for a free and democratic Russia. Expressions of “deep concern” and the sanctions already imposed are not enough. These measures punish only the puppets, while the puppeteer gets away with it.
As Swedish economist Anders Aslund wrote in his book Russian Crony Capitalism, the two largest offshore companies that offer anonymous investment opportunities are the United States and the United Kingdom. This must change. But other democracies must also turn their backs on the Putin regime. Germany should reconsider its business ties with Moscow. In particular, it should review its commitment to Nord Stream 2.
The case against Navalny: details
- Navalny has been in custody since January 17. He was detained immediately after he flew to Russia from Germany, where he was undergoing treatment after poisoning. On February 2, a court in Moscow granted a petition to replace his suspended sentence with actual imprisonment in a general regime colony after the Federal Penitentiary Service accused Navalny of violating the probationary period’s conditions. Considering his stay under house arrest and in the pre-trial detention center, Navalny has about two years five months left to stay in the colony. On February 22, the foreign ministers of the EU member states decided to apply a new global sanctions regime for violation of human rights in connection with the criminal prosecution of Navalny.