Tag Archives: Alexei Navalny

More Bad Journalism on Russia

Having said in my last post that you shouldn’t disbelieve everything that the press tells you about Russia, I find myself returning once again to examples of bad reporting, as these seem to be rather more prevalent than the good variety. Bad journalism, though, is not all the same. It takes different forms, and some examples from this week and last prove the point.

First off is report by the BBC’s Russian correspondent Steve Rosenberg that came out yesterday, which you can watch on the BBC website. Rosenberg travelled to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk supposedly to find answers to the question ‘In what direction is Russia heading?’, Krasnoyarsk being chosen because it’s geographically more or less slap bang in the middle of Russia.

As I note in an analysis of the report published today by RT (which you can read here), it’s not very good. Having travelled 4,000 kilometres to Krasnoyarsk, Rosenberg tells us absolutely nothing about the city itself, but limits himself to interviewing three people who tell him a bunch of things he could just as easily have heard if he’d stayed in Moscow. The whole piece is then framed, start and finish, by a statement that “Russia is heading towards a big catastrophe.” Ah yes, Russia is doomed! How many times have we heard that one?

Frankly, I can’t imagine why Rosenberg bothered going to Krasnoyarsk to do this. Having travelled that far, he could have made an effort to explore the city and tell us how things are there. But none of it. It was just another excuse to tell us that Russia is going down the plughole.

This then is one type of bad reporting: it consists of focusing on selling a given narrative rather than trying to understand and explain the object under study.

This type isn’t untrue, it’s just not very interested in anything that doesn’t fit the chosen story. The second type, by contrast, bends the truth to fit the narrative.

Continue reading More Bad Journalism on Russia

Why Aren’t More Russians Sympathetic to Navalny?

Opinion polls suggest that a) most Russians don’t believe that Alexei Navalny was poisoned, and b) far more Russians think that his imprisonment is fair than think it is unfair.

Why is this?

I discuss various theories in my latest piece for RT, which you can read here. Possible answers include:

a. Russians’ brains have been addled by state propaganda.

b. ‘The slave soul of the Russians’, which makes them resent anything that represents freedom.

c. Navalny himself – just not a very likeable guy.

d. Navalny’s association with the liberal opposition, a group that, in light of the experience of the 1990s, is considered by many to be irredeemably corrupt, as well as lackeys of the West.

e. Crying wolf – Russians don’t trust the source of the story that Navalny was poisoned, i.e. the West. This may be due to the extreme hyperbole that Western media and politicians have used in recent years.

Take your pick as to which you think is correct.

Amnesty, and the Failure of the Navalny REvolution

I don’t like spending too much time on the story of Alexei Navalny. For all of its personal drama and tragedy, ultimately, I suspect, it will end up being a mere footnote in history. Basically, as I see it, Navalny is a political dead end, not the paradigm changing revolutionary that so many in the hack pack believe him to be.

That said, people seem to expect me to churn out Navalny stories, so in response to the demand, I have written a couple.

The first, which you can find on the website of the Centre for International Policy Studies here, is a fairly basic survey of the whole Navalny saga, and explains why, in my opinion, his return to Russia and subsequent arrest has not sparked the mass political turmoil that so many pundits were expecting.

The second article, which is on RT here, looks at Amnesty International’s decision to stop referring to Navalny as a ‘prisoner of conscience.’ I point out that the decision makes little sense given that a) the hate speech Amnesty refers to is not relevant to Navalny’s imprisonment, and b) Amnesty continues to insist that Navalny’s jailing is political. The message seems to be that we only deem people ‘prisoners of conscience’ if we happen to like them. I conclude that this is a bad precedent.


Defaming Veterans

I have written a piece for RT paralleling Alexei Navalny’s trial for defaming a WW2 veteran with the arrest of someone in Scotland on similar charges, and link it all to the place of WW2 in national mythology. You can read it here.

Meanwhile, my morning newspaper brought me this story of a fellow professor at the University of Ottawa whom a Polish court has just ordered to apologize for allegedly defaming someone (long dead, I believe) in relation to WW2. Is this a new trend?

Talking about Navalny on Al-Jazeera

I joined a panel on Al-Jazeera’s show ‘The Stream’ today, to discuss Alexei Navalny. The video is embedded below.

The key moment for me was when another guest, Roman Dobrokhotov, said that things in Russia would be very different if millions of people protested ‘and that is what is likely to happen.’ It strikes me that these people are living in a world of fantasy, in which they will be able to mobilize vast hordes onto the streets and bring about a revolution. At the same time, they are obviously rather isolated even within the opposition movement. This became clear when Dobrokhotov called Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky ‘Putin’s man’, who does whatever Putin tells him to (which is clearly not true).

Anyway, decide for yourself.

Navalny REvolution Collapses in Mutual Recrimination

Last week, I spent some time writing about the Decembrists – a group of disgruntled army officers who launched a failed coup in December 1825 in an attempt to overthrow Tsar Nicholas I. The Decembrists were divided into two groups – the Northern Society and the Southern Society. The former were considered more moderate, and came up with a plan for a constitutional monarchy. The latter, by contrast, plotted to murder the entire Royal family and institute a republic.

The leader of the Southern Society was an officer named Pavel Pestel, who wrote a sort of draft constitution for his proposed republic, in which everyone was to be equal before the law, citizens would enjoy full civil and political rights, and the country would have a parliament elected by universal franchise. It all sounded very democratic. Except that Pestel made it clear that all of that stuff would have to wait for at least ten years. In the meantime, Russia would be run by a dictatorship. Who was to be the dictator? Pestel didn’t say, but many of his colleagues felt that it was obvious that he had himself in mind. According to his biographer, Pestel alienated many others in the movement by ‘the perceived Napoleonic scale of his personal ambitions.’

The idea of the wannabe Napoleon lurking behind a democratic façade was making headlines again this week, with the publication of an article by the leader of the liberal Russian party Yabloko, Grigory Yavlinsky. In this Yavlinsky denounced opposition activist Alexei Navalny, who was recently jailed after returning to Russia from Germany, where he had been recovering from poisoning.

After making some unsavoury comments about the Putin ‘regime’, Yavlinsky condemned Navalny’s tactic of endless street protests, saying that they couldn’t possibly overthrow the government and would only lead to more repression. He then cited at length the late liberal writer Valeriia Novodvorskaia, who called Navalny ‘the future leader of the mindless mob, with a Nazi inclination.’ ‘If the masses follow Navalny’, Yavlinsky quoted Novodvorskaia as saying, ‘fascism awaits the country.’ Yavlinksy made it clear that he agreed. ‘There is nothing positive in Navalny’s pretensions to participate in Russian politics,’ he wrote.

Yavlinsky’s suspicions of Navalny aren’t unique among Russian liberals. I get the impression that a lot of them don’t like him very much. But Russian oppositionists have long taken the view that the only real enemy is the state, and so you shouldn’t attack others who are with you in wanting to overthrow it. Consequently, it didn’t take long for people to start laying into Yavlinsky for having dared to break this taboo. Most notably, the former mayor of Ekaterinburg Evgeny Roizman declared that it would now be impossible for him to ally with the Yabloko party in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Russian liberals are divided enough as it is, with several parties competing for what is already a small share of the vote. Rather than uniting the opposition, it would seem that Navalny’s return to Russia has served to split them into even smaller fragments.

This is not what was meant to have happened. For weeks, Western media was crowing that something had fundamentally changed in Russia, and that the demonstrations against Navalny’s arrest which took place in cities across the country were a sign of a new mood of discontent that was bound to lead to an accelerating wave of protest. Navalny, it was said, had galvanised the Russian population against the government.

Yet after two weekends of demonstrations, last week Navalny’s deputy Leonid Volkov called them off. That was it – the great wave of protests lasted all of two weekends. All things told, it can only be deemed a failure.

Volkov then made things worse by declaring that he was embarking on a new strategy, namely to mobilize Western states to impose more and more sanctions on Russia. If he’d wanted to endorse the Kremlin’s claim that Navalny and his team are in the pay of the West, Volkov couldn’t have found a better way.

Meanwhile, Navalny dug his own grave a bit more this past week in an appearance in court to face charges that he had slandered a World War Two veteran. If you don’t want to be convicted of slander, one might imagine that you would avoid insulting the person you are accused of slandering in court. You might, but not if you’re Alexei Navalny, who took the opportunity to accuse the veteran of being a ‘puppet’. Putting aside the validity of the court process, one can see that this wasn’t the wisest thing to do. There aren’t many war veterans left alive, and those that are have a sort of holy image that is wrapped up in Russians’ sense of patriotic pride of the victory over Nazi Germany. You insult that at your peril. Needless to say, the Russian media were all over the story, painting Navalny as treacherous and unpatriotic, and disrespectful of Russia’s sacrifices in the struggle versus fascism.

If something like the modern press had existed two hundred years ago, one can imagine how they would have covered the Decembrist revolt: ‘Regime in trouble’; ‘Failed coup marks first step in campaign of protest’; ‘Arrest of Pestel further undermines Tsar’s legitimacy’. And so on. Yet Nicholas I lived on as Tsar for another 30 years, and it took another 50 years on top of that before another serious attempt to overthrow the regime took place. Of course, history never exactly repeats itself, but for now it looks very much as if the Navalny revolution has shot its bolt.

MI6/Navalny ‘Collusion’ Video

After RT published a video released by the Russian Federal Security Service showing the head of Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation meeting with an alleged MI6 agent, I rushed out a quick blog post. After a minute or two, I then deleted it, as I believed that the issue needed deeper reflection. I have now rewritten the piece, and it has been published by RT here.

To make life easier for you all, I have copied the text into this blog post below. I’ve also added in the RT report with the FSB video (I embedded the Russian version as the English one, for some reason, doesn’t include the excerpt I cite below, but if you don’t speak Russian, don’t worry – in the key bits of the video they are speaking in English. Just fast forward to the segments in black and white). Here it is:

Continue reading MI6/Navalny ‘Collusion’ Video

How not to help the Russian opposition

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.

Navalny’s Underpants

In my latest piece for RT (which you can read here), I poke fun at the latest allegations concerning the poisoning of Alexei Navalny which appeared in this weekend’s copy of The Sunday Times.

I think that I should make it clear, if it isn’t from reading my article, that I am not making fun of Navalny, nor mocking the idea that he was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. Rather, I’m mocking some particularly bad journalism, and my point is that articles like that in The Sunday Times actually help the Russian government and its supporters deny that anything untoward happened in the Navalny case. Moreover, this is part of a more general phenomenon in which exaggerated and sometime quite bizarre reporting about Russia by the Western press has the effect of persuading people that everything they read is made-up nonsense, and so makes them prone to conspiracy theories.

The problems with the Sunday Times article go far beyond the few things I pointed out in my piece for RT. I consider it a very poor piece of work. And that’s a shame, as there are serious questions which the Russian government needs to answer about the Navalny case. Today, for instance, Bellingcat has published an investigation purporting to show that various agents of the Russian security service, the FSB, have been following Navalny for years, and that some of these agents have medical and chemical warfare training and have been in contact with a scientist with an interest in organophosphate chemicals.

I’m not in a position to verify Bellingcat’s claims, nor the various assumptions which lie behind them. But I don’t think that you can dismiss them out of hand. They are certainly a much more serious attempt to point the finger of blame at the Kremlin than what The Sunday Times produced. The thing is, though, that you can just imagine Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mariia Zakharova, confronted by a question about the Bellingcat report, cracking a joke about Navalny’s underpants and the ever growing number of supposed attempts on his life, saying that the West’s story keeps changing, and using that to undermine any attempts to claim that there is indeed something worth investigating.

In short, bad journalism has consequences. It needs to be called out. At the same time, though, I would urge readers not to imagine that because some of the claims in the press are ridiculous, everything is. Something smells super fishy in the Navalny case, and it’s not just his underpants.

Cups of tea and bottles of water

The Navalny poisoning story keeps getting odder. After the Russian oppositionist fell ill on a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk, his supporters claimed that he was likely poisoned by a cup of tea he consumed at Tomsk airport. Now we’re told that the poison was in a bottle of water he drank in his hotel in the same town. Alexei Navalny’s team have released a video showing them packaging up materials from Navalny’s hotel room including a couple of water bottles. This, we must suppose, is meant to corroborate the bottle poisoning thesis.

Personally, I have no reason to doubt that a German laboratory found, as it claimed, a chemical of the Novichok-type in the bottle in question. The identification of the nerve agent in (or on, it’s not entirely clear which) the bottle then allowed the Germans to confirm the type of ‘cholinesterase inhibitor’ in Navalny’s blood. This may explain why Russian doctors were not able to confirm the presence of poison – they didn’t have a sample to compare the blood with. Beyond that, though, the latest twist in the Navalny story leaves one with a lot of questions.

The cup of tea scenario never made a lot of sense. To poison Navalny that way would have meant a) knowing in advance that he was going to have a cup of tea in the airport; b) knowing at which café his colleague would buy it; c) knowing who that colleague would be and telling the poisoner, so that s/he gave the right cup to the right person; d) somehow obtaining the cooperation of whoever would be serving tea at that time and in that place; and e) somehow getting them to lace Navalny’s tea with Novichok while not contaminating anybody else’s food or drink or poisoning themselves. Clearly, this didn’t make a lot of sense from a practical point of view.

The problem with the bottle of water scenario is that it isn’t more obviously practical. Unless this was an inside job, and the bottle was laced by one of Navalny’s entourage, one has to wonder how a would-be poisoner would know that Navalny would drink from that particular bottle of water in that particular room.

If it was one of those complimentary bottles one finds in hotel rooms, one can see how it could be done – the poisoner sneaks in the room, replaces one of the complimentary bottles with a pre-poisoned one, and sneaks out. But how did s/he know which room Navalny would be staying in? (I understand that his staff never book under his name – so even if you can identify rooms booked by the staff, you wouldn’t know which one was Navalny’s, not another member of the team’s). And how did the poisoner know that Navalny, and not somebody else, would drink from that specific bottle? There may be good answers to these questions, but they’re not immediately obvious.

Then, of course, there are the issues of how the bottle got packed and transported to Germany without infecting anybody else, and why it apparently took hours for the poison to have its effect. Again, there may be good answers, but as yet they aren’t clear.

Planting a poisoned water bottle in a target’s room could indeed work as a method of murder, but it’s fraught with risks of failure – the target just doesn’t drink any water; someone else drinks from the bottle; and so on. If you want to kill somebody, you can imagine a simpler, and far more certain, way of going about it.

But at this point, we don’t even know that the water bottle was one provided by the hotel. What if it was one Navalny and his staff bought elsewhere? If that’s the case, how on earth was the poison delivered into the bottle? I can’t say that I can see how.

In short, it’s not impossible that Navalny was indeed poisoned this way, but it’s difficult to work out the exact dynamics of it, and it’s a scenario which begs a lot of questions.

So, how do we get answers?

First, the German government needs to be a lot more forthcoming with information. At present, it’s refusing to tell the Russians anything. It’s position seems to be that the Russian authorities are guilty of the crime, and therefore can’t be trusted with the evidence and should just confess. Obviously, this isn’t a very good way of getting the Russians to cooperate.

Second, the Russian government needs to show a much greater enthusiasm in investigating (at present, the authorities have just carried out what they call a ‘pre-investigation’, which appears to be less than thorough). The authorities’ attitude seems to be that the whole story is a plot to frame them and so it’s best to pretend that no crime was committed at all. Equally obviously, this isn’t a very good way of convincing outsiders of their innocence.

As I said before, the Russians need to take this rather more seriously. Everyone involved– Navalny’s team, hotel staff, etc. – needs to be interviewed; the bottle’s origin traced; the room and hotel swabbed and analyzed; the exact chemical composition of the poison publicly identified. And so on.

This requires both the Germans and the Russians to stop treating this as a political football and instead work together to find answers. This, of course, is almost certainly not going to happen. As a result, attitudes on both sides of the political divide are likely to harden. In the West, nearly everyone will take it as granted that an attempt was made to murder Navalny using a Novichok-laced water bottle. And in Russia, nearly everybody will point to the problems with the water bottle thesis and conclude that the story is total hokum.

As for me, I don’t know what to make of it. But what’s for sure is that the episode is yet another nail in the coffin of Russian-Western relations. Somehow or other, it all keeps getting worse.