Why does the West refuse to acknowledge Navalny as a martyr?

Alex Charilaou

5 February 2021

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of InQuire Media

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Josep Borrell, the EU Minister for Foreign Affairs, recently flew out to Moscow to directly reprimand the Putin administration for the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. This comes not long after Navalny returned to Russia from Germany, where he has been recovering from Novichok poisoning for the last few months. As some will likely remember from the Salisbury affair in 2018, Novichok is the poison of choice for the Russian secret service, and Navalny has claimed that the attempted assassination was on direct orders from President Putin himself.

Embarrassingly for the Russian autocrat, Navalny published an exposé from his recuperation in Germany of what is purported to be President Putin’s personal ‘palace’ on the Russian Black Sea. A lavish ‘separate state within Russia’ with amenities like a pool, shops and around the clock security. Outrage over this enormous governmental corruption provoked thousands of dissidents to take to the streets in various Russian cities over the weekend to protest the arrest of Alexei Navalny and demonstrate against the increasingly repressive regime Putin has constructed over his two decades in power. Many of these demonstrators have since also been arrested or subject to egregious police brutality.

Anger will likely grow in Russia over the next few weeks as Navalny has been sentenced to two years and eight months in jail, the actualisation of a suspended sentence for ‘corruption charges’. But will any of this change Russia for the better? Probably not. The protests were a strong signal, but there isn't anywhere near enough popular support to bring about change; especially without a concerted, united international response. Let us keep in mind how quickly the Salisbury affair blew over – Russia conducted an attempted assassination in a NATO country, resulting in one causality, yet there were minimal repercussions.

Plenty of performative moves were carried out, of course: a few sanctions (though many were frustrated by the Trump administration), diplomatic withdrawals, joint statements condemning the Russian Federation in the strongest terms. But when push comes to shove, Russia’s too important. Further economic sanctions are unlikely, because the EU, the US and (to some extent) the UK can’t stomach them. Take Merkel’s response to the recent revelations about Navalny and the Putin regime: despite a litany of criticisms from Germany’s EU partners, their government’s view on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline being built between Russia and Germany has ‘not changed’. Because the oil, which will double in supply with completion of the pipeline, is more important.

Possibly the most milquetoast response of all has come from the United States. They sent out a tweet supporting ‘the right of all people to peaceful protest, freedom of expression’ and asking for Navalny to be released. That was all. No announcement of sanctions, no ultimatums, nothing. We might see a change of tack from Biden’s new Secretary of State, but it’s hard to say. I certainly doubt we’ll see as strong a condemnation from Secretary Blinken as he’s issued to Venezuela in recent months.

The most irritating thing about this fact is Russia knows it too, and much of the Putin administration can afford to be brazen: foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused the United States of domestic ‘interference’ and aiding ‘illegal’ protest. Part of this reluctance must be an acknowledgement by the United States that their denunciations mean less in the wake of the last months: It’s difficult to call out police brutality when the Black Lives Matter summer is still in the rear-view mirror. It’s rich to call out autocracy and anti-democracy when your president attempted a quasi-coup just weeks ago.

Nevertheless, the West should be vociferously calling out Russia’s clampdown on democratic dissent and demanding Alexei Navalny’s immediate release.