On October 20th of 2021, the European Parliament President, David Sassoli, tweeted that Alexey Navalny is the winner of this year’s Sakharov Prize, pointing out that Navalny’s tireless fight against Vladimir Putin’s regime “cost him his liberty and nearly his life”. Sassoli also made a call for Navalny’s “immediate release”.
Alexey Navalny, who nowadays finds himself in prison for a politically motivated case, thanked the European Parliament in an Instagram post. Although Navalny has no direct access to social media, he has found a way to continue voicing his opinions, he drafts the texts for the posts, then gives them to his advocate, and finally, the advocate hands them to a person who regulates posting in Alexey’s Instagram profile. In one of his posts, he noted that receiving the Sakharov Prize is not only an honor but also a responsibility. Alexey dedicated this prize to people who fight corruption all over the world, from journalists to protestors, and wished them perseverance and courage.
The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought is a prestigious award for those who have dedicated their lives to the defense of human rights and freedom of thought, and it also includes a monetary award of €50,000. The prize is named after a Russian scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov who fought for civil liberties and civil reforms in the Soviet Union and was persecuted by the state; his efforts were rewarded by the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.
Alexey Navalny is, undoubtedly, the most outstanding candidate for the Sakharov Prize in 2021. During the last year and a half, Navalny faced obstacles that could have ended his life, and right now no one can be sure about his safety, as Russian prisons are infamous for their violent conditions. In August 2020, while filming yet another corruption-uncovering project in Siberia, Alexey was poisoned to the brink of death, entering into an eighteen-day coma. Doctors in the Russian hospital doubted the fact that he was poisoned and did not even allow his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, to transport Alexey to another hospital for further treatment. Only after writing a public letter to Mr. Putin was Yulia permitted to transport her husband to Charité Hospital in Berlin. When having been brought out of a coma, Navalny had to relearn how to walk and essentially, function as he used to before. Soon after, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed the presence of a deadly and dangerous chemical weapon from the Novichok group (a group of nerve agents developed at the Russian state chemical research institute by the Soviet Union and Russia between 1971 and 1993) in Alexey’s blood. The same nerve agent, the Novichok nerve agent, was also used to poison the former Russian spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia in England in 2018. Russian police denied this interpretation of Navalny’s poisoning and still hasn’t opened a criminal case to investigate the crime and find culprits. In December, Navalny and his team released an investigation of his poisoning in cooperation with Bellingcat, The Insider, Der Spiegel, and CNN, in which they proved that the poisoning is the Federal Security Service’s handiwork.
Later, when Navalny claimed that he would indeed return home, Russian authorities threatened him with prison for violating the terms of his suspended sentence in a 6-year-old case, and the Russian Investigative Committee launched a criminal case against Alexey. Despite this, the opposition leader flew from Berlin to Moscow on January 17, 2021.
He had yet to put foot on Russian soil when he was arrested, it happened right at the passport control where he was taken into custody for 30 days pending trial. On January 19, Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) released a new investigation about a “palace” that was built for the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin. According to Navalny and his team, 100 billion rubles ($1.35 billion) were spent on the building’s construction. The investigation hit one million views on YouTube in less than an hour. Following this, FBK announced plans to hold rallies against Alexey’s detention on January 23 and later on January 31. Tens of thousands of people across Russia came out in protest. They were beaten by police and arrested right on the streets. The total arrest count was 3,700 people (on January 23) and 4,500 (on January 31) countrywide.
However, Russian authorities are not used to listening to citizens’ opinions and demands. That is why on February 2 Moscow’s Simonovsky District Court sentenced a Russian opposition figure to 2.8 years in prison.
I remember listening to the court session online, hearing the judge passing the sentence, and not believing my ears. I, as a liberal Russian citizen, could not imagine my life without watching Alexey’s investigations and hearing his “Hi, it’s Navalny” at the beginning of every video.
Although Alexey is still in prison, he and his team continue doing their best to make Russia a democratic country, to stop Putin’s almighty and autocracy. Before the legislative elections that were held last September FBK announced the “Smart Voting” campaign with the aim of depriving the United Russia party (the ruling party) of votes in the elections. Thousands of people took part in this campaign and made their votes “smart” by supporting another party, not Putin’s one. This resulted in the reduction of United Russia’s seats in the State Duma (the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia). For campaigns like “Smart Voting” FBK was officially recognized by the Russian court as an extremist organization.
I am incredibly happy to see Alexey Navalny in the list of the Sakharov Prize’s laureates among people like Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, and organizations such as Democratic opposition in Venezuela and in Belarus. However, at the same time, it is sorrowful to realize that this prize is not going to affect Alexey’s sentence in prison. Russian authorities are continuing to eliminate every organization that Navalny had created and showed their disrespect for the European Parliament’s decision.
For many years, Alexey was a key political figure for Russians, including me, and the only hope for establishing democracy in Russia. His sentence to prison was a determining factor in my leaving the Motherland, as no chance for changes in Russian political and social life was left. I endorse the words of the European Parliament President as well as those of millions of people and demand Navalny’s immediate release.