Poison is the crudest way to suppress dissent in Russia
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It was worse than a crime, it was a mistake. This memorable verdict on the kidnapping and execution by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804 of the Duc d’Enghien, a royal émigré, was allegedly invented either by the French statesman Charles Maurice de Talleyrand or by the chief of police Joseph Fouché. But were they right? Until his death, in captivity on the south Atlantic island of Saint Helena, Napoleon defended the murder of the Duke.
The alleged poisoning of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition activist, poses a similar question in a different form. The alleged attack on Navalny could turn out to be a political miscalculation if it fueled public discontent with President Vladimir Putin‘s regime. However, unlike Napoleon, no one in the Kremlin accepts responsibility for the Navalny incident, so there is no point in expecting an admission that this was a mistake.
Modern authoritarian systems prefer to shift the blame for the violence against their detractors onto low-level rogue agents, or be completely silent. The 2018 murder and dismemberment of dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul resulted in the conviction of eight people in a largely closed-door trial in the kingdom. Agnes Callamard, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, described the Saudi legal process as “the antithesis of justice”.
Likewise, the former Polish communist regime has put four security officers in the dock for the 1984 murder of Jerzy Popieluszko, an opposition Catholic priest. The trial was a masterclass on how to protect high profile figures from liability. In Bulgaria, no one has ever appeared in court for the murder of Georgi Markov, a dissident journalist who was stung on Waterloo Bridge in London in 1978 by an assailant wielding an umbrella covered in ricin, a deadly poison.
Like Markov, Mr. Navalny offends the powers that be by exposing their misdeeds. Markov did so in programs broadcast in Bulgaria on BBC World Service and Radio Free Europe. In March 2017, Navalny released a video accusing then Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of stupendous corruption. By the end of the year, the video had garnered some 24 million views.
The emphasis on corruption is a sign of our times. Embezzlement and personal enrichment were hallmarks of the Communist era, but on a less extravagant scale. The natural resources of Russia and other states have not been diverted for private gain. There were few opportunities for regime insiders to acquire incredibly expensive properties abroad.
Murder is not the only option, or even the most desirable, available to a repressive system that wants to punish its opponents. For those in charge, and for poisoners and shadow thugs who may or may not have ties to state power, the essential point is to demonstrate that no criticism of authority is safe, day and night, abroad or at home. Petr Verzilov, a member of Pussy Riot, a Russian punk rock protest group, suffered a mysterious poisoning in 2018 but survived to tell the tale.
Six years earlier, three other members of the Pussy Riot had been jailed for an anti-Putin coup in a cathedral. A Moscow judge denounced it as blasphemous hooliganism. The case is reminiscent of a notorious 1976 trial in Czechoslovakia, when a court imposed prison terms on musicians from Plastic People of the Universe, a rock band. These convictions were truly a mistake and a crime. They led to the formation of Charter 77, Czechoslovakia’s most important human rights group until the fall of communism in 1989.
But there is no law in history that states that the abuse of power must be turned against the perpetrators. If he recovers at the German hospital he was taken to on Saturday, Mr Navalny will know better than anyone.