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Navalny: Russian Laurent Louis or an ordinary provocateur?

The Grand Chamber of the ECHR will meet in Strasbourg on January, 24 to review the case of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, again, since on February, 2 2017 the ECHR had ruled in the Navalny vs. Russia case: there were violations, but no political motive by the state. Will the decision be the same now, after Navalny's bid for the presidency of the Russian Federation failed?

Published: January 23, 2018, 10:41 pm

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    However, the complaints of Navalny – perhaps, the most famous opposition in Russia, who has gained popularity with videos about corruption in the highest echelons of power ‒ do not deal with the election. During the first two years of Vladimir Putin’s third term (2012 to 2014) he had been charged with administrative penalties seven times for organising unauthorized rallies and participating in them. For the same violations, the punishment varied: five times he was fined, and put under 15 days of arrest after serving 7 days.

    At that time the Court decided that Navalny’s rights to freedom and personal inviolability, to a fair trial and to freedom of assembly and association (articles 5, 6, 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights) were indeed violated. Why was Navalny not satisfied with the fact that the ECHR refused to recognise the political underpinnings of these actions by the Russian authorities in dismissing the charges of violations of articles 14 (“prohibition of discrimination”) and 18 (“limits of the use of restrictions on rights”) of this Convention.

    Alexei Navalny. Photo: Wiki

    Navalny insists: all this time he was persecuted as a politician, and the purpose of the persecution is to crush the opposition. The Russian Laurent Louis, who fights the system on his own – that is how he is being portrayed. Similarly to Louis, Navalny has flirted with nationalist rhetoric, uncovered stories that had been buried or that people had just been afraid to tell. But, unlike Louis, he has never criticised the United States of America.

    Recently the Russian Constitutional Court ended Navalny’s bid to participate in the presidential election in Russia. It is scheduled for March 18, and incumbent President Vladimir Putin will stand for a fourth time, with Navalny considered to be his main rival.

    Research by Russian sociologists show that the antagonist have no real chance of defeating the long-standing Russian leader, while Navalny himself, as well as a number of high-ranking North American and European politicians, maintain that Putin is afraid of Navalny, seeing him as a “threat” in a repeat of the Ukrainian scenario in Russia.

    Formally, the evidence considered by the ECHR, as well as the measures taken against Navalny, played no part in barring Navalny from participating in election. The Central Election Commission, and then the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, ruled instead that Navalny’s criminal conviction prevented him from registering as a presidential candidate. A case of embezzlement was brought against him at the enterprise ‘Kirovles’, located in one of the northern regions of Russia ‒ the Kirov region. Navalny was then an advisor to the governor of this region, Nikita Belykh, who is currently accused of receiving a large bribe and under arrest.

    Navalny himself was found guilty of committing this crime, which according to Russian legislation is classified as particularly serious. He was given a suspended sentence: that is, left at large, where he continued to engage in political activities, becoming one of the leaders of a small Russian opposition.

    Notably, the ECHR never considered the “Kirovles case”, but rather focused on the detention of Navalny at rallies. Alexei Navalny is thus questioning the legitimacy of the election, because it is politically expedient to ignore accusations of state plundering but not how the politician’s rights are said to have been trampled.

    Navalny, in particular, claims that the police had no reason to push him into the special vehicle each time and take him to the station instead of writing a protocol on violations on the spot. Hence, their goal was to neutralize him, to deliberately deprive him of the right to say what he thinks, a politically motivated decision to deprive him of the opportunity to accuse the Russian authorities of corruption and lawlessness.

    Photographic evidence of those meetings where these detentions took place and the accompanying descriptions of those events may point to a different plan, however.

    The scheme of an unauthorised rally in Russia is a familiar one. A protest gathering where some “reasonable” slogans are being displayed, becomes tense when the police repeatedly asks the gathered to disperse, in order to adhere to legal requirements. The once orderly and calm atmosphere becomes unruly, and then someone ‒ of course, not Navalny himself ‒ “accidentally” pushes one of the policemen, setting fire to a combustible mix as tempers flare.

    Scuffles ensue, detentions follow and likely violence too: It becomes a perfect opportunity to take photographs of demonstrators suffering the blows of a police baton, but not to document the bloodied law enforcers. Do the latter deserve that? And are the protesters really prisoners of conscience?

    It may all have been accidents, but such incidents are regularly presented as examples of police brutality and aggression.

    In scrutinising the recent cases of approvals and disapprovals of Navalny’s meetings in Russia, we see a paradoxical tendency. One can not help but notice that the truth is that Navalny’s requests for rallies are more often approved than rejected.

    It is an established fact that Navalny is either often a no-show at scheduled rallies or calls on supporters to suddenly change the location. At any rate, he seems to be doing his utmost to elicit disapproval from authorities.

    It may even be that by inviting clashes with police – an inevitable outcome in the case of an illegal public gathering – the real goal of Alexei Navalny becomes apparent, since skirmishes with law enforcement are always a threat to safety, even to casual passers-by. For any provocateur, affected “civilians” would actually be a godsend. Is the same thing true in the case of Navalny?

    The Russians have a saying: “It’s good where we do not exist” meaning that the underdog always has an advantage in a stand-off. But for Europeans it may be that worshipping the underdog is easier in a different country, not too close to home. Those who struggle with power, who overthrow regimes, and who arrange excitement, are not necessarily always national heroes.

    In Brussels, on November 26, 2017, the rally against slavery in Libya turned into a massacre after about 30 people in balaclavas appeared among the demonstrators. They headed to the street of Louise, where they began to smash shopfronts. They felt that their right to speak was above someone’s right to private property, to health and safety.

    And these are the words of the mayor of Brussels Philippe Clos on that day: “Provocateur behavior is unacceptable, and the police response ‒ immediate and tough.” Was there a time and a desire for the subordinates of mayor Clos to draft protocols on the ground, and was there any political motive linked to their actions? And would the owners of the affected shops and boutiques object to law enforcement immediately intervening in the “unacceptable behavior provocateurs”?

    Russians raise a question that Europeans too may ponder: what kind of freedom is absolute? Which right is inherent? Freedom and the right to a rally, including an unauthorised one? Or freedom and the right to security, including ‒ to life?

    It may be possible that the timely detention of Navalny ‒ not discounting the violations and excesses of authority ‒ had helped the Russians to avoid mass clashes between the police and demonstrators, and to avoid dozens of arrested, scores of injured, and mounting manufactured discontent.

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