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Honored with the top European human rights award, Russia's most famous political prisoner, Alexei Navalny, is fighting to return to Russians their basic political freedoms, writes Konstantin Eggert.
It is an unpleasant surprise for Russian President Vladimir Putin: his arch-nemesis Alexei Navalny has been awarded the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Many consider it the European equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize.
According to my sources in the European Parliament, the decision to award the €50,000 ($58,000) prize to Navalny did not come about lightly. The main question about Navalny's nomination was whether one can consider what he does to be a struggle for human rights.
Navalny is primarily known as an anti-corruption activist and politician. He ran for the mayor's office in Moscow in 2013, winning 27% of the vote. His attempt to participate in the presidential elections in 2018 was blocked by the Kremlin.
Ultimately, he was selected for the "great courage in his attempts to restore the freedom of choice to the Russian people," the European Parliament's vice-president, Heidi Hautala, said in a statement. It cost him his freedom and nearly his life, she added. On behalf of the parliamentarians, Hautala called for Navalny's immediate and unconditional release from prison. The citation makes it clear: the award aims not only to honor what Navalny did but also to pressure the Kremlin to set him free.
MEPs got it right: Today Russians are devoid of a fundamental right — to freely choose a government that is responsible to the people, transparent in its actions and leaves power when voted out by the citizens. In a sense, it is little use debating whether Russia should be a presidential or parliamentary republic; whether it should have an EU-style hate speech legislation or the US-style bill of rights; whether it should define marriage as a union of one man and one woman or in broader terms, before Russians have the chance to freely elect their own representatives to debate these issues in the legislature.
Navalny's disclosure of massive abuses of power by the Putin regime that went unpunished as well as his history of government-concocted court cases and imprisoning dissidents remind us of another basic right that is lacking in today's Russia — a right to a fair trial, and broadly speaking, to an independent justice system based on laws that do not serve as an instrument of perpetuating authoritarian rule.
Finally, Navalny's failed poisoning is a stark reminder that even the most basic right — the right to life — can be easily disposed of by the authorities. Thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet system, Russians in some sense are even worse off politically than they were in the last years of existence of the USSR. Navanly's struggle against high-level corruption and his personal life story contradict and subvert Putin's core message of unquestioning obedience and fear of reprisals.
Moreover, EU leaders are obliged to demand Navalny's release even more vigorously than before — something that is going to irritate Putin immensely.
Giving the award to Navalny will effectively put paid to attempts by some extreme left-wing activists in the West to paint him as a steadfast nationalist unworthy of support. The European Parliament has sent a clear message: Navalny's fight is to let Russians decide their fate themselves.