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By Yevgenia Albats
At first, it seemed like a bad joke: Amnesty International had stripped Alexei Navalny of his status as a prisoner of conscience.
The reports became more real when Margarita Simonyan, head of the Kremlin’s international propaganda channel RT, put out a triumphant tweet, acknowledging that one of her puppet freelancers living in New York had been instrumental in convincing Amnesty that Navalny “is a Nazi.” The post ended with congratulations to everyone in uniform on the occasion of Russian Defenders of the Fatherland Day. Her tweet might as well have read: “Great job, guys! Congratulations on the success of your mission. Perfect timing!”
Had President Vladimir Putin pardoned Navalny, and that had prompted Amnesty to act? No. Had Navalny—who recently survived poisoning by agents of the Russian state—been released from jail by request of the European Court of Human Rights? No. In fact, coincidentally, right after the Amnesty decision, Navalny disappeared from the Matrosskaya Tishina jail. His lawyers suspect he was transferred to a penal colony, but neither they nor his wife or parents were informed of his whereabouts.
Perhaps Amnesty had changed its mind, and now considered as valid the charges on which a Moscow kangaroo court had convicted and sentenced Navalny to more than 2½ years in prison last month? No, not that either. In a statement, Amnesty—denying that its decision had been influenced by the Russia smear campaign against Navalny—acknowledged that he “has been arbitrarily detained for exercising his right to freedom of expression, and for this reason, we continue to campaign for his immediate release.”
The organization said it was continuing to campaign for his release—but in the process they have slandered a man who survived the August assassination attempt, woke up from an 18-day coma with no memory or the ability to control his arms and legs, pulled himself together, flew back home, was detained, sentenced, put in solitary confinement, and now shipped off like a parcel to some godforsaken labor camp, where the inhuman, unjust and punitive Russian prison system will try to kill him again.
Hell of a job, Amnesty! Congratulations! Putin and his entourage are grateful and won’t forget the favor.
In the interests of full disclosure: Navalny is a friend of mine. I’ve known him since 2004, and have witnessed his rise as a leader of the Russian opposition, and someone who is now considered around the world to be a politician capable of challenging, and maybe even beating Putin, if Russia ever has free and fair elections.
Back in the early 2000s, it was a confusing time in Russia. Putin was elected to a second term without any real competitors. Oil prices were reaching the sky, and raining down profits. This made many of my fellow Russians feel that life was getting better, maybe for the first time in decades. But these economic successes let the Kremlin opt for “managed” and then “sovereign” democracy, which meant bureaucratic politics instead of real democracy.
Political parties that had developed in the previous decade were either incorporated into the ruling party or changed their face. Communists were no longer the party of the working class, but rather a collection of Stalinists and followers of the Russian Orthodoxy; liberals were in cahoots with the Kremlin; and those aligned with the opposition party Yabloko were in search of a new message.
The level of trust among citizens was bottoming out, giving way to the kind of unity where trust is based on ethnicity and/or religion. As a result of two bloody wars in Chechnya and a lack of political alternatives, Russian nationalism was on the rise. Russian marches, first inspired by the Kremlin, became among the most-attended political events, bringing together young people, many from humble backgrounds and impoverished neighborhoods, eager to find their place in the world. Navalny, having grown up the son of an army officer in a military compound, felt the pain and confusion of those young Russians. They were looking for someone to blame for their real or imaginary misfortunes.
Ethnic nationalism is often a defining feature of nations in transition with non-structured politics and unclear ideologies. While grassroots nationalism alone isn’t necessarily dangerous, nationalism appropriated by the state and put on its banners can turn into fascism. In the first decade of this century, the Kremlin was playing with nationalism, unable to decide whether to capitalize on ethnic nationalism or imperial nationalism. When Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, he chose the latter.
Navalny saw an opportunity to turn those confused young Russian nationalists into his constituency. After all, as he argued in our endless discussions on this subject in 2004 and 2005, those nationalists—even the most radical among them—lived among us: They’re our neighbors, and they won’t rocket away to Mars. So either the Kremlin was going to use them in its war against democratically-minded people. Or he, Navalny, was going to try to turn them into the future consumers of democratic politics.
His logic was clear: To win a fight against the Kremlin and the United Russia party that serves Putin, there had to be a movement that would bring together people of different backgrounds and views, just as Poland’s Solidarity had unified the workers of Gdansk against communist rule in the 1980s. Among those workers were both anti-Semites and Warsaw intellectuals who included Jews. I was one Jew who believed that Navalny had to give it a try, and find ways to speak to the young Russian nationalists. If he didn’t do so, then a Kremlin-groomed Goebbels would fill the void.
So, Navalny gave it a try. Some of his attempts were successful. By 2013, leaders of moderate nationalistic groups did turn into his supporters, and gave up the language of hate and disrespect toward ethnic minorities. In other attempts, Navalny played with evil images and adjectives to suit popular taste in one or two video blogposts that he produced in 2006-2007 under the banner of his movement at the time, “People.” It was a mistake, for which Navalny paid dearly, and keeps paying, as the current Amnesty International case shows.
But despite the claims of Amnesty in its public statement (the organization did not respond to my request for an interview), Navalny has said he regrets the words he used in the past and has distanced himself from them. It is strange that when Amnesty researchers “decided to re-examine the case and conducted a thorough review of the evidence base,” as they asserted in their statement, they seem not to have approached anyone who might know more about the evidence than so-called activists residing in the United States or Spain.
For those of us who have spent time studying the history of the Cold War and Soviet disinformation campaigns known as “active-measure operations,” the whole affair of renouncing Navalny’s prisoner-of-conscience status is familiar. It is notably similar to the KGB’s smear campaigns against Soviet-era dissidents, the founding of the Anti-Zionist Committee in the U.S.S.R, and the destruction of the reputations of the Russian, Ukrainian and Georgian nationalists who were sentenced to years of imprisonment.
Amnesty International’s decision got the response that Putin supporters longed for. The Russian leader’s executioners failed to murder Navalny, so now they are trying to kill his reputation. A futile attempt, I believe. The gauntlet has been thrown down. Stay tuned.
Yevgenia Albats, a member of the Persuasion board of advisers, is a radio talk-show host, investigative journalist based in Moscow, and editor of The New Times magazine.
[A version of this article appeared in The Moscow Times.]
Ms. Albats, thank you for your informed commentary. As you know better than most, the events that have transpired, over the past few weeks, speak more to Amnesty International's decision-making processes, and the reforms that those processes require, than to the nobility of Mr. Navalny's efforts in Russia. Sadly, given these times, where moments caught on tape regularly manage to nullify a person's years of efforts and accomplishments, Amnesty's actions shouldn't surprise us.
I can't help but to caricature (please pardon the sarcasm) the internal conversations at Amnesty, proceeding something along the lines of, "Well, we know Navalny's spent years fighting for reforms against one of the world's most repressive authoritarians, but he was also mean in those videos . . . " I hope that Amnesty takes time to reevaluate whether it actually wants to help important dissidents who confront tyranny.
Appalling! Amnesty is sinking to level of UN Human Rights Council. And though I believe President Biden is right that the battles must be fought from within that forum, there is really no excuse for Amnesty