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Russian Observers: Sakharov Prize Does Not Mean Aleksei Navalny's Immediate Freedom

Russian anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Aleksei Navalny
Russian anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Aleksei Navalny

Imprisoned Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s October 20, 2021 receipt of the European Parliament’s 2021 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought may increase the international pressure on the Russian government for its jailing of Navalny, but will not lead to his immediate release, two Russian observers believe.

The 45-year-old politician, recognized by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, received the €50,000 ($58,218) award, considered the European Union’s main human rights honor, “for his courage in fighting for freedom, democracy and human rights,” the European Parliament tweeted.

Earlier recipients of the prize, named in honor of the Soviet human rights activist and nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, have included South African anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela and Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, both of whom were also in prison when they received the award.

Tweeting news of Navalny’s win, the center-right European People’s Party group, which, together with the Parliament’s Renew Europe group, nominated him for the award, urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to release Navalny and “all other political prisoners” from jail.

The Russian government has not yet responded to Navalny’s receipt of the award. It follows Novaya Gazeta Editor-in-Chief Dmitry Muratov’s October 8 receipt of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, together with Filipino investigative journalist Maria Ressa, “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression ….”

Sergei Lukashevsky, director of the Sakharov Center, a human rights organization, described the Sakharov Prize as “purely symbolic,” but noted that Mandela and Sentsov were both freed after receiving the award.

“I can’t consider that (Navalny) will be freed tomorrow or his safety guaranteed,” commented Lukashevsky. The “political and moral support” the politician will sense from the prize are likely the most immediate benefits, he added.

(Watch Current Time's live special on Aleksei Navalny's receipt of the Sakharov Prize:)

Navalny was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison after returning to Russia this January from Germany, where he had been recovering from an apparent nerve-agent attack he attributes to the Russian Federal Security Service, a domestic intelligence agency.

Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service charged that Navalny had failed to notify them of his whereabouts, as stipulated by a suspended 2014 court sentence for alleged embezzlement.

Since Navalny’s imprisonment in the regional town of Pokrov the government has intensified its measures against the politician’s spheres of influence.

In June 2021, at prosecutors' urging, a Moscow court declared the Navalny-founded Anti-Corruption Foundation, the Citizens’ Rights Defense Foundation, and his national network of offices to be extremist. Dozens of his former employees and allies have since left Russia to escape what they term politically motivated prosecutions.

Most recently, the Navalny movement’s Smart Voting app, which predicts candidates most likely to defeat the ruling United Russia party, was blocked from use within Russia ahead of the country’s September parliamentary elections. Despite robust international criticism, Apple, Google, and Telegram complied with the ban.

The Sakharov Prize could appear to President Putin's domestic critics as a rebuke to those decisions.

Nonetheless, political analyst Leonid Gozman, an outspoken Putin critic, believes the prize will not lead to an annulment of Navalny's prison sentence.

"This won't change simply because Navalny will be in jail as long as Putin is in the Kremlin," Gozman commented. "They'll find some kind of accusation against him -- that he incorrectly crossed the street, offended a dog somehow, or thought up a government coup."

The Kremlin, he predicted, will look on the award only as further proof of an alleged conspiracy in the West to back attempts at overthrowing Putin’s rule.

In 2020, representatives of the Belarusian opposition who risked police violence to protest against what they believed to be a falsified presidential vote also received the Sakharov Prize. The Kremlin offered to deploy police in Belarus to help the government put down such protests, which Minsk sees as Western-backed political sabotage.

Nonetheless, Navalny’s receipt of the prize has given hope to the Sakharov Center’s Lukashevsky that, eventually, Moscow may feel compelled to free the politician from jail. “It’s a long road, but, fortunately, this prize is a very important step on this road,” he said.

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