ANC’s Russian relations: Will they learn anything from Navalny’s death? – Sara Gon

In a tragic turn of events, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a vocal critic of the Putin regime, has passed away at 47. Navalny’s imprisonment, marked by alleged unfair prosecutions and a poisoning attempt, underscored the erosion of democratic values in Russia. His death raises concerns about human rights and political freedoms. The timing coincides with an ANC delegation’s visit to Moscow, prompting reflection on alliances with autocratic regimes. As South Africa distances itself from the West, questions arise about the ANC’s priorities and the implications for the nation’s people.

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By Sara Gon*

News broke on Friday that Alexei Navalny, a prominent opposition figure in Russia, had died.

Navalny, who was 47, had been a thorn in the side of the Putin regime for some time. After being poisoned by a suspected nerve agent (a favouured way Moscow deals with opponents) he sought treatment abroad, before returning to Russia, where he was imprisoned.

At the time of his death he was serving a prison sentence in a penal colony in the Arctic Circle.

In this country

But when all is said and done, if Alexei Navalny had been an opposition figure in South Africa, he would not have died in prison for his political beliefs.

In fact, he would never have been in prison for them in the first place. Imprisonment for political beliefs ended with the death of the unlamented apartheid system.

Our liberal democratic constitution ensured that would never happen. In terms of the Equality provision (Section 9) he would have been entitled to the equal protection and benefit of the law.

Navalny would have had the right to ‘the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms’.

He would similarly have had an inherent right to dignity, and to have his dignity respected and protected.

Most pertinently, in terms of Section 12F(2), he would have had the right to freedom and security of the person, which includes ‘the right—

          1(a) not to be deprived of freedom arbitrarily or without just cause;

          (b) not to be detained without trial;

          (c) to be free from all forms of violence from either public or private sources;

          (d) not to be tortured in any way; and

          (e) not to be treated or punished in a cruel, inhuman or degrading way.

There is little doubt that the Russian government of President Vladimir Putin ensured that he was unfairly prosecuted, and that his trials were distortions of justice.

Navalny was an opposition leader, lawyer, anti-corruption activist and a political prisoner. He organised anti-government demonstrations and ran for office to advocate reforms against corruption in Russia, and against Putin and his government. He was recognised by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience and was awarded the Sakharov Prize for his work on human rights.

By 2021, Navalny had more than six million YouTube subscribers. He and his team published investigations detailing alleged corruption by high-ranking Russian officials and their associates.

Suspended sentence

In 2013 Navalny received a suspended sentence for embezzlement but was still allowed to run in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election. He came second to the incumbent mayor, a Putin appointee.

In 2014 Navalny received another suspended sentence for embezzlement. Both of his criminal cases were widely considered to be politically motivated and intended to bar him from running in future elections.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the cases violated Navalny’s right to a fair trial, but the sentences were never overturned.

In 2016 Navalny launched his presidential campaign but was barred by Russia’s Central Election Commission due to his prior criminal conviction; the Russian Supreme Court subsequently rejected his appeal.

In 2018 he initiated Smart Voting, a tactical voting strategy intended to consolidate the votes of those who oppose United Russia.

Nerve agent

In August 2020, Navalny was hospitalised after being poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent. An investigation implicated agents from the Federal Security Service, formerly the KGB, Putin’s erstwhile employer.

In January 2021, Navalny returned to Russia and was immediately detained on accusations of violating parole conditions while he was hospitalised in Germany, which were imposed as a result of his 2014 conviction.

His arrest and the release of the documentary Putin’s Palace, which accused Putin of corruption, [prompted mass protests across Russia. In February 2021, his suspended sentence was replaced with a prison sentence of over two and a half years, and his organisations were designated as extremist and liquidated.

In March 2022, Navalny was sentenced to an additional nine years after being found guilty of embezzlement and contempt of court in a new trial described as a sham by Amnesty International. His appeal was rejected and he was transferred to a high-security prison. 

In August 2023, Navalny was sentenced to an additional 19 years in prison on extremism charges. 

In December 2023, Navalny went missing from prison for almost three weeks, and then re-emerged in a new prison in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, nearly 4 000 km from Moscow

And finally, on 16 February 2024, the Russian prison service reported that Navalny had died at the age of 47, allegedly from a blood clot.

Navalny commented, after his sentencing in August 2021, that his imprisonment would either be as long as his life or the life of the political regime: tragically it was the former. Navalny never operated covertly; he was forthright in his criticism of Putin. His death was probably inevitable.

ANC

And just to add to implications for the ANC, Navalny’s death was reported in the middle of a trip in which the Secretary General of the ANC, Fikile Mbalula, and a delegation have travelled to Moscow, at the invitation of the United Russia “party” to discuss forming an organisation to challenge the dominance of the West and erode neocolonialism.

Navalny’s death should give Mbalula pause for thought about the fact that most of the putative organisation’s members are autocratic, undemocratic, and, some, murderous regimes. Not to mention that Russia is the imperialist regime of the 21st century: witness Ukraine, Georgia, Chechnya, Transnistria, the Kiril Islands, or Tajikistan. The Baltic states are nervous, too.

Africa

Africa, for Putin, is only valuable for its mineral resources. Moscow will support regimes and political parties for this purpose; the people of Africa are irrelevant.

The ANC has chosen to jettison the West, whose investments actually stand to benefit the people of South Africa.

I wonder if Mbalula and his comrades will pause for thought. I think the answer is ‘No’ – and likely for the reasons we are only too aware of.

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*Sara Gon rants professionally to rail against the illiberalism of everything.

This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission

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