The Moscow Times is reporting that the Russian authorities are planning to imprison opposition activist Aleksei Navalny for 13.5 years. This would consist of 3.5 years, previously suspended, for his earlier conviction for fraud in the Yves Rocher case, and an additional 10 years for new charges which allege that Navalny stole contributions given to his campaign by supporters.
I have no idea if this is true, but it is not implausible. The Moscow Times remarks that the reason for this sharp turn in policy towards Navalny ‘comes from the Kremlin’s belief that Navalny is a Western cutout.’ Support for this hypothesis came with a statement by the head of the Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, who told the newspaper Argumenty i Fakty that the West was using Navalny to destabilize Russia from inside, with the aim of producing a result similar to the Maidan revolution in Ukraine. ‘The West needs this new leader [Navalny] to destabilize the situation in Russia, for social upheaval, strikes, and new Maidans,’ said Patrushev.
It’s clear, then, that the line the Kremlin plans to take against Navalny, and associated oppositionists, is that they are a tool of hostile Western powers. One might imagine, therefore, that those Western powers, if they really want to help the Russian opposition, would try to dispel this perception, to distance themselves from the opposition as much as possible, and so allow it to claim that it is truly an autonomous phenomenon.
Instead of this, however, Western pundits are lining up with proposals which seem to be designed to justify everything that Patrushev had to say, and so to discredit Navalny and the Russian opposition as a bunch of Western stooges.
Take for instance one-time US diplomat Richard Haass, who now serves as head of the prestigious Council for Foreign Relations, considered by many to be the American establishment think-tank par excellence. On Monday, he posted the following message on Twitter:
A suggestion: the next Nobel Peace Prize recipient ought to be Alexei Navalny for advocating peaceful protest against corruption in Putin’s Russia. Doing so would not only be right on the merits but would provide some much needed protection & a boost to Navalny & his supporters.
I suppose that would be like how the Nobel prize for literature protected Boris Pasternak and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from persecution from the Soviet authorities (not!). In reality, the effect of such a move would likely be just to discredit the Nobel committee in the eyes of the Russian government, and to reinforce the impression that Navalny is a tool of the West.
Haass isn’t the only one making bad recommendations. For instance, an editorial in the Financial Times on Tuesday argued that the West must hold the Kremlin ‘to account for Mr Navalny’s imprisonment, and how it treats his supporters.’ Meanwhile The Times made the same point. Germany should cancel the North Stream 2 pipeline, it said, while the United Kingdom should seize the money of Russians hiding their wealth in London, so that the Kremlin’s lackeys in the UK ‘start to feel the pinch.’
The prize for worst advice, however, surely belongs to Mark Galeotti, who posted the following on Twitter:
I’d also like to see diplomats accompanying marchers in hope moderates state behaviour and esp media crews covering protests.
One can scarcely conceive of anything better designed to justify the authorities’ claims that Navalny and his supporters are in the pay of the West. Let’s imagine that Russian diplomats accompanied protestors in the United States or some other Western country – the outrage would be enormous. Why would it be any different in the case of Western diplomats joining political protests in Russia?
And just imagine what the Russian media would make of such a thing? They’d love it – pictures of Western diplomats ‘interfering’ in Russian affairs would be all over the TV, allowing the talk show hosts to make hay with claims that it was proof positive of how the protests were being orchestrated from abroad. It really is a truly misguided suggestion.
But it follows a pattern. Underlying a lot of these proposals is a sense that Russia is teetering on the brink of social collapse and political revolution. ‘Acting together, the West can send Mr Putin reeling,’ claims The Times. The West must prepare for Russia’s inevitable ‘rupture’, says Janusz Bugajski, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, DC, in an article for the Washington Examiner.
In these circumstances, it’s felt that all the West needs to do is give Russia a push and the whole rotten edifice will come crumbling down. But this isn’t correct. The system is much more stable than its critics like to think, and the current scale of protest is both far from unprecedented and far from sufficient to bring the system to its knees. A bit of help from foreign powers isn’t going to change that.
What it will do, though, is taint Russia’s opposition even more than it is tainted already. Right now, Navalny’s fate hangs in the balance. The authorities might yet decide not to go down too hard on him and others like him. But if the pundits above have their way, the response could well be very harsh. The more the West is seen as interfering in Russia’s affairs with hostile intent, the harder the state will clamp down on its opponents.
In brief, the last thing the Russian opposition needs is more ‘help’ from the West. I realize that saying that deflates our collective ego, by depriving us of a positive role in the unfurling of events. But in this case, as in so many others, a bit of humility might do everyone a lot of good.