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Russia’s Navalny awarded prestigious European human rights Sakharov Prize

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny appears in the Babuskinsky District Court in Moscow on Feb. 20. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
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LONDON — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sharpest critic and the country’s most prominent political prisoner, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was awarded a prestigious European prize on Wednesday that recognizes his work in defense of human rights.

Navalny, 45, rose to international prominence when he was poisoned in Russia on Aug. 20, 2020, making a recovery in Germany before returning to Russia, where he was immediately detained and later imprisoned. At the time, Washington condemned “Russia’s attempted assassination” of Navalny “with a chemical weapon” and imposed sanctions on top Russian officials and state agencies.

In a statement on Twitter Thursday, Navalny said the Sakharov Prize “is not only an honor but also a great responsibility.” Navalny does not have access to his social media, but his family and lawyers visit him regularly in prison and post to his accounts.

“I am just one of those many who fight corruption because I consider it not only as the cause of poverty and degradation of states, but also as the main threat to human rights,” he said, adding that he dedicates the prize to “all kinds anti-corruption fighters around the world.”

“I wish them perseverance and courage even in the scariest of moments,” he said.

The European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought — named after Soviet physicist and political dissident Andrei Sakharov — was launched in 1988 to “honor exceptional individuals and organizations defending human rights and fundamental freedoms,” according to the European Parliament. Previous winners have included Belarusian opposition figures, Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai.

Alexei Navalny was poisoned one year ago. His fate tells us a lot about Putin’s Russia.

“He has fought tirelessly against the corruption of Vladimir Putin’s regime. This cost him his liberty and nearly his life,” European Parliament President David Sassoli said in announcing the award to Navalny. “Today’s prize recognizes his immense bravery and we reiterate our call for his immediate release.”

When asked about the prize being awarded for “immense bravery” on Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “with such decisions, the European Parliament probably considerably reduces the value of these words.”

The Kremlin finds that “such decisions are made by people who, let’s say, just don’t have accurate information specifically on this episode and specifically on the story with this person — to be more precise, this convict,” he added.

Russian authorities have launched an unprecedented crackdown on the political movement Navalny has led since the late 2000s. He was known for the investigations of his Anti-Corruption Foundation, which have alleged extensive corruption among the political elite, including Putin.

Pundits had speculated that Navalny may have been in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month, which instead went to Russian compatriot and newspaper editor Dmitry Muratov and the investigative journalist Maria Ressa of the Philippines. Navalny at the time congratulated both.

The choice of Navalny by the leaders of the European Parliament over the other nominees, which included a group of Afghan women and an imprisoned Bolivian politician, aren’t likely to improve Europe’s relations with Russia.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted on Wednesday that ties between the military alliance and Russia had hit a nadir.

“The relationship between NATO and Russia is now at the lowest point since the end of the Cold War,” Stoltenberg told a news conference in Brussels. He called for more dialogue after Moscow shuttered its permanent mission to NATO earlier this month and suspended the alliance’s liaison office there.

Stoltenberg, however, welcomed the European Parliament’s decision to award its top human rights prize to Navalny. “I think it’s an important recognition of the important role he has played for many years in supporting democratic values and being a strong voice in Russia,” Stoltenberg told reporters.

Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, agreed that relations between Europe and Russia were “worsening,” but said that Europe had “limited options.”

“There is a great deal of concern across Europe about the mistreatment of Russian civil society by the Kremlin,” Stelzenmüller told The Washington Post. “You can read the prize as a signaling from the European Parliament that they take the plight of civil society in Russia very seriously,” she said.

But the European prize may have little real impact on Moscow, argues Jason Bush, a senior Russia analyst at the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy, since the Kremlin was “pretty used by now to Western criticism of their treatment of Navalny.” He added that sanctions had so far been “light” and inflicted little damage on Moscow.

“I don’t think it will have big geopolitical implications,” Bush told The Post. “The Russians will probably just shrug this off.”

Nonetheless the prize may be used by Russian media to serve as propaganda, he added, and as proof that “Navalny is a lackey of the West.”

In a summit with Putin in June, President Biden said he had raised Navalny’s case with the leader. Biden has also previously warned Moscow that any poor treatment of Navalny would “hurt relations with the rest of the world, and me.”

Despite being barred from running for president against Putin — and from seeking any other office since 2013 when he was runner-up in the Moscow mayoral election — Navalny still has managed to pose a political threat to Putin and the powerful oligarch network that dominates the economy.

The prize carries an award of $58,000 and normally is presented at a ceremony on Dec. 15 in Strasbourg, France.

Khurshudyan reported from Moscow. Robyn Dixon in Moscow contributed to this report.

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