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West's 'wokeness' helped Russia to redefine a 'prisoner of conscience'

West's 'wokeness' helped Russia to redefine a 'prisoner of conscience'
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By forcing the standards of “wokeness” on a Western institution like Amnesty International, the Kremlin has weakened Russian dissident Aleksei Navalny as he begins his almost three years in a penal colony near Vladimir (190 km from Moscow). Everyone understands he is a political prisoner, isolated from Russian political life. That is the definition of “prisoner of conscience,” which Amnesty International has chosen to withdraw from his name.

Navalny, the major opposition figure to Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinThe Memo: Russia tensions rise with Navalny's life in balance How to defeat Vladimir Putin Russian fighter jet intercepts US, Norwegian patrol aircraft over Barents Sea: report MORE, was a public relations challenge for the Kremlin even before his run for Moscow mayor in 2013. Through his Fund for the Battle Against Corruption (FBK), he has exposed the corruption and criminality of the Kremlin leadership. He barely survived the poisoning carried out, allegedly, by the Kremlin’s Federal Security Service (FSB); he returned to Moscow from treatment in Germany, only to be sentenced by a Russian kangaroo court to two years and eight months in a labor colony. To the Kremlin’s irritation, Navalny has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Poland’s Lech Walesa. Amnesty International, itself a Nobel prize-winning organization, added Navalny to its list of “Prisoners of Conscience,” whose honor roll includes Nobel laureates Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Kremlin could ill-afford to have a principled political prisoner in its penal colonies, revered Mandela-like by the international community. Therefore, its disinformation machine — masterful at discrediting persons inconvenient to the regime — switched into high gear. For Navalny, a young and attractive family man with teenage children, the usual charge of pedophilia would not have stuck. Instead, the Kremlin played on Amnesty International’s “own scruples,” as one writer put it.

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The Kremlin attacked Navalny for “racist” anti-migrant statements he purportedly made a decade or so ago. The attack was handled largely through foreign journalists associated with RT — a Kremlin-directed international news and TV network — in various countries.

As the Kremlin’s anti-Navalny campaign heated up, news items started to circulate alleging that, in his late 20s and early 30s, Navalny held a leadership role in a nationalist party and purportedly made statements directed against migrants from the Caucasus. 

Confronted with such rumors, Amnesty International retreated behind closed doors to decide what to do with its latest “prisoner of conscience.” It concluded that unretracted statements made at least a decade back by Navalny reached “the threshold of advocacy of hatred.” The internal review concluded that Amnesty International would continue to actively campaign for Navalny’s release but no longer refer to him as a prisoner of conscience. Russian propagandists had their opening.

Shortly after these internal meetings, the Amnesty International deliberations were leaked to the press and more than 100 Russian media outlets jumped on the story that Navalny was no longer considered a prisoner of conscience; similar headlines in Western media followed.

Realizing it had played into Moscow’s hands, Amnesty International issued on Feb. 25 a confused, torturous non-apology entitled “Amnesty International Statement on Aleksei Navalny”:

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“After painstaking consideration, we concluded that we had made a mistake in our initial determination (that Navalny is a prisoner of conscience). In making that determination, we had focused solely on the circumstances surrounding Navalny’s unjust arrest and detention, and given insufficient weight to some of his previous comments which, as far as Amnesty is aware, have not been publicly renounced. We concluded that some of these reached the threshold of advocacy of hatred, at odds with our definition of a POC (prisoner of conscience), and took an internal decision to refrain from using the term in future … Reports that Amnesty’s decision was influenced by the Russian state’s smear campaign against Navalny are untrue.”

Taken at face value, the Amnesty International statement says that, to be considered a “prisoner of conscience,” the prisoner must be both the subject of unjust arrest and detention AND have a clean record with regard to present and past violations of wokeness in choice of words and deeds.

Amnesty International’s claim that Navalny never publicly renounced his racist language can be easily disproven. In an interview with Sergei Guriev on Guriev’s YouTube channel, Navalny expanded on his election platform which rejects hate speech, affirms his commitment to gender and ethnic equality, and promotes diversity and inclusion. For “unwoke” Russian politics, the Navalny platform is a remarkable exercise in the protection of minorities who enjoy few protections in Russia.

Although Amnesty International declared it would still work for Navalny’s release, the Kremlin has already won the public relations battle.

One of the most visible international human rights organizations has, in fact, labelled Navalny a bigot, a hater, an advocate of violence — in sum, a reprehensible person not deserving the title of “prisoner of conscience."

Putin’s Russia is one of the world’s least “woke” nations. Migrants have few rights; the LGBQT community has few legal protections; critics of Stalin’s atrocities have to hold their tongues. This does not prevent Russia’s “information technologists” from marshalling the power of Western wokeness. If America's founding fathers can be declared unworthy of respect and praise, wokeness opens a wide avenue for discreditation of any political figure, domestic or foreign, by Russia’s disinformation specialists.

Consider the irony of the unwoke Kremlin holding the feet of Western institutions to the woke fire.

As a result, Amnesty International fell victim to the Kremlin's smear campaign — as did, perhaps, Navalny's chances for a Nobel Peace Prize. Putin could hardly ask for anything more.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct the location of the penal colony that Navalny has been sentenced to.

Paul Roderick Gregory is a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a research fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research. Follow him on Twitter @PaulR_Gregory.