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Dmitry Muratov and the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize: Putin’s dilemma (and relief it didn’t go to Alexei Navalny)


Gerrit Olivier is an emeritus professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Pretoria and was South Africa’s first Ambassador to Russia and Kazakhstan. He is a former Chief Director in the South African Department of Foreign Affairs.

The reaction by Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson to the journalist winning the Nobel Peace Prize was no doubt carefully considered by the Kremlin, begging the question whether or not it was yet another shrewd, opportunistic Putinist tactic or a real change of heart?

In his inimical way, Winston Churchill once observed that interpreting Kremlin political intrigues are “comparable to bulldogs fighting under a carpet”.

Against all expectations, President Vladimir Putin’s close confidant and spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov congratulated Dmitry Muratov, editor of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, on co-winning this year’s Nobel Peace award, praising him as “courageous, talented and committed to his ideals”.

Coming from the habitually sullen, unbending and paranoid Kremlin, these are indeed rare words to describe an outspoken opponent of the regime. At the same time, the bland hypocrisy of these words is glaring as most of the Kremlin’s critics are still ruthlessly being persecuted for playing exactly the role Peskov idealised.

No doubt this reaction was carefully considered by the Kremlin, begging the question of whether or not it was yet another shrewd, opportunistic Putinist tactic or a real change of heart? My guess is that it was mainly a sign of relief that Alexei Navalny, Putin’s imprisoned bête noir, did not get it, and yet another win for Putin.

Surprisingly, Muratov survived the Kremlin’s purges while many others of his ilk were branded as foreign agents or extremists, neutralised, even murdered under the direction of Putin and his overzealous former KGB siloviki.

Previous Russian Nobel prize laureates like Boris Pasternak, Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were all harshly persecuted and branded as “foreign agents” or “enemies of the people”. These were all messages from the Kremlin that opponents of the regime have nowhere to hide.

It is fairly obvious that a faint-hearted Nobel Prize Committee bent over backwards to avoid another messy Kremlin stand-off, betraying the high purpose and independent legacy the award stands for.

To his credit, Muratov stated boldly that the prize must go to “those who died defending the right of the people to freedom of speech”, like fellow-reporters Igor Domnikov, Yura Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, Anastasia Baburova and Natasha Estemirova, adding magnanimously that he would have awarded the honour to the jailed Kremlin critic Navalny. Also, the names of brutally murdered Boris Nemtsov, fatally poisoned Alexander Litvinenko, and the near-murder and trumped-up imprisonment of Navalny could be added to the list.

Surprisingly Muratov escaped persecution. Novaya Gazeta was left alone despite its longstanding anti-Kremlin track record. According to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, he has “for decades defended freedom of speech in Russia under increasingly challenging conditions”. Other critical media outlets like the TV Dozhd broadcaster, Meduza news, iStories and the Outsider have all been outlawed as “foreign agents”. Clearly, things do not add up!

In the broad context of popular resistance against repressive Putinism, Navalny’s heroic role stands out as a decidedly singular one. The award came at a time when his entire movement has practically been decimated by brutal and relentless Kremlin fiat; when the latter’s reign of suppression of democracy and freedom of expression inside the country climaxed in the September 2021 Duma (parliament) elections in which Navalny’s “smart vote” internet strategy was brutally nullified. The outcome was a massive and blatant electoral fraud, landing the Putinists (the United Russia Party) a phoney landslide victory while Navalny was languishing in a Siberian gulag on trumped-up charges after escaping murder by a no more than a hair’s breadth.  

Bypassing him, as the Nobel Committee did, played right into the Kremlin’s hands, devaluating the historical legitimacy and symbolism of the award, hastening his demise.

In a sense, therefore, it was a damp squib, by no means a harbinger of an emerging Putinesque glasnost (openness and transparency) in Russia, or perhaps, an olive branch to the democratic opposition as some might have hoped.

According to Putin, Muratov “did not break the law” but will face persecution if he does. First, he was praised for his principled heroism, only to hear afterwards that a sword was still dangling over his head. Strange logic!

Of course, while awarding the peace prize to Navalny would not have ameliorated Kremlin repression, it would have legitimised his campaign of democratic resistance, and be a shot in the arm for him and his movement now out on a limb. Having been overlooked, the adjudicators simply added to his movement’s marginalisation and possible demise. In the end, it was simply just another instalment of weak-kneed Western diplomacy to reign in Russian imperialism and domestic repression.                                      

While the Kremlin has practically nullified the Navalny campaign as well as all other efforts to promote a regime change in Russia, the message is that for now Putin is on top and irreplaceable. He has proved himself over two decades a ruthless master tactician and strategist, made possible, of course, largely by incompetent Western diplomacy since 1991. He will rule until 2036 if he wishes to. Outside interference or demonisation will fail to remove him, rather galvanise his hold on power.

If there is change, it will come from inside the country, most likely successful “colour revolutions” like in the former Soviet territories. This is what Putin fears most and why the success of movements like Navalny’s are so important, rendering the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize award such a misnomer.  

But also for Putin, all the good things might not go together. He may reason that 2036 might be a bridge too far for a septuagenarian ruler, that he has reached the apex of his rule, that the mood of Russians will change, particularly with the younger generation taking over as domestic social and economic problems start dominating the agenda.

Russia may again face a debilitating era of stagnation similar to the one in the Leonid Brezhnev era when the latter lost his compos mentis and was dismissed.

Indeed, a nightmare scenario for Vladimir Putin. DM


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