26 February 2021

Putin has weaponised Western wokery – and Amnesty has been fooled


You have to hand it to the Putinites. They have imbibed KGB tactics from the master and wield them with both subtlety and precision.

Alexei Navalny has been seen by much of the democratic world as a champion of freedom. So, no more Mr Nice Guy. Time to degrade him in the eyes of the world.

They have understood the power of woke. Its primary weapon – to discover a past sin, an “inappropriate” action or attitude, an attachment to a discredited cause or position since discarded – smears and negates all subsequent activities. This is bad enough for an academic, or employee of a large and sensitive corporation, who can lose status, students, research money or even their job.

But for Navalny, now serving a two-and-a-half year prison sentence, being ‘cancelled’ is a possible death sentence. Back in Russia to face what he knew would be imprisonment and worse, he knows that his best hope is international attention and pressure. For all its bluster, the Putin regime suffers from sanctions, and even more from the growing numbers and activism of the Navalny defenders, who look to the democratic West for support and example.

Amnesty was, to be sure, the victim of a well planned sting.

It began when Katya Kazbek, a freelance columnists for propaganda channel RT, put out a Twitter thread soon after Navalny’s arrest, drawing attention to his nationalist views in the late 90s and describing him as an “avowed racist”. The theme was picked up and amplified by another contributor to RT, Aaron Maté, presenter of the Pushback programme on the pro-Kremlin investigative site Grayzone. Maté picked up on Kazbek’s tweets and amplified them. As these gained traction, RT’s editor Margarita Simonyan weighed in with a tweet about the positive impact “our columnist” Kazbek had had.

A caller to Amnesty then drew its attention to the allegations against Navalny – which included his designation of immigrants from the Caucasus as ‘cockroaches’, and a video in which Navalny wears a dentist’s white coat and calls for the removal of that which annoys us, as rotten teeth do, while images of dark-skinned immigrants were intercut. The organisation then issued a statement that it would cease to refer to him as a ‘prisoner of conscience’.

Though that appears to have originally been an informal, or internal, decision, spokesman Alexander Artemev later said that:

“Navalny has not publicly denounced his YouTube videos so our idea is that somehow he can relate to what he said…he cannot be a prisoner of conscience: that is someone who never advocates hate or violence or uses hate speech”.

Artemev pointed to “hundreds” of complaints flooding into Amnesty’s website, protesting against the ‘prisoner of conscience’ designation.

In further statements, Amnesty has insisted that it continues to oppose the Navalny’s imprisonment and supports his campaigns. Its present stance, however, which topped the bulletins across all of Russia’s state-funded media, is helping to silence a man who has, more than any other, exposed the corruption of the Russian governing elite. By giving credence to a carefully orchestrated campaign, Amnesty is letting the Kremlin draw the veil of past intolerance across Navalny’s present heroism.

But those who fight despotic rulers do not have to pass an exam set by Western liberals. Just look at Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while under prolonged house arrest for opposing Myanmar’s ruling military junta. Her subsequent defence of the Burmese army’s murderous attacks on the Rohingya has caused a sharp fall from grace. Now, however, she once more finds herself in detention – charged with illegally importing walkie-talkies – with her trial set for next Monday.

While she waits, huge demonstrations, with her image held high on placards and even tattooed on peoples’ skin, continue, in spite of several deaths as troops used live ammunition. For many Burmese, she remains a symbol of a democracy glimpsed then, shut down. And if it is hard to listen to her laboured excuses for mass murder, it is harder to imagine that, if possessed of real, rather than highly supervised (by the military) political power, she would use the kind of lethal force the army let loose.

Navalny is not so compromised. His nationalist period, which he does not deny (and is anyway attested by videos and records of speeches), has been put behind him: he has expressed regret, though never disavowed the racist videos. Those who know him best say he has changed greatly: he has become a convinced democrat, even a relatively liberal one.

His immensely popular videos detailing elite corruption, his ability to attract large crowds across Russia and his personal courage are now coupled with reflections on how to refashion Russia into a “normal” European state – after 30 years of post-Soviet existence, in which two generations have grown up without the stifling oppression of pre-Gorbachev state communism.

Amnesty must now see that it is being used as an unwitting pawn and revoke its designation of Navalny. If anyone is a prisoner of conscience in the world, it is Alexei Navalny, whose life hangs by a thread of Russian government calculation.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

John Lloyd is a Contributing Editor to the Financial Times, ex-editor of The New Statesman and a co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.