Home European News Putin, Orbán, Assange: The ugly, the bad and the good

Putin, Orbán, Assange: The ugly, the bad and the good

Putin, Orbán, Assange: The ugly, the bad and the good

The ugly

The news of the death of Vladimir Putin‘s leading opponent, Alexei Navalny, came as a bombshell. All the more so as it arrived in the middle of the Munich Security Conference, which gathers the aristocracy of international security policy each year to discuss the most pressing issues in global security.

Navalny’s death, notes Lev Kadikis in the Latvian daily Delfi, was “unexpected but predictable”. In his lengthy portrait of the Russian opposition figure, Kadikis observes that “Navalny was the ideal opposition candidate for the Russian presidency. His image and message appealed to all strata of Russian society”, not least because “he came from the upper-middle class […], that vast swathe of Russian society that has been completely abandoned by both the government and the opposition. Neither Navalny nor his parents have ever owned ostentatious possessions – luxury cars, country houses and so on […]. He has never belonged to the ruling class. He has never held any position in Putin’s system. […] He spoke to the public in simple language that was understandable to people throughout the country from all social backgrounds. And he spoke about what concerned his audience most – social inequality, the ostentatious and shameless wealth of the ruling elite, corruption – the principal scourges of Russian society.” In the same newspaper, Āris Jansons points out that Navalny’s decision to return to Russia, after being treated in Germany for poisoning, was proof that he had “not grasped the turn of the screw that had taken place in the country during his six-month absence”.

While the Western press was clearly shocked by the demise of a man who was seen as the only credible alternative to Vladimir Putin, Navalny’s death was virtually ignored by the mainstream Russian press, as the BBC‘s excellent Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg notes.

For most Russian observers and independent media outlets in exile, responsibility for Navalny’s death falls squarely on the shoulders of the strongman in the Kremlin: “More than 20 years of Putin’s rule now provides a pretty good case study to demonstrate that political assassination makes perfect sense and that Putin, being a very practical man, embraced the strategy years ago. A whole panoply of assassination methods are part of his political toolkit”, write Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan in the journal of the think tank CEPA. For the two exiled Russian journalists, “In this dark marketing strategy, where Putin is the main product, the leader is sold to Russia as the nation’s only possible leader and as a man who must have the power of life and death. No one really doubts this — and the Kremlin does little to dispute it”.

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Similarly, the editor of The Insider, Roman Doborkhotov, writes that “Putin killed Navalny, but he didn’t kill all the Navalnys. Navalny outgrew his status as a human being long ago and became a phenomenon. Navalny will live as long as we ridicule the dictator, as long as we denounce the crooks and thieves, as long as we find new ways to protest, as long as we truly, sincerely believe in a better Russia and at least do something that brings us closer to it”. His colleague at Novaya Gazeta Europe, Kirill Martynov, believes that “Navalny’s murder means that the criminals in the Kremlin have free rein to do whatever they want with anyone, be it Russians, Ukrainians, or anyone else. This is another sign that we have passed the point of no return. Those Russians who have so far pretended that the war is none of their business have now been offered a clear-cut image of their future. Putin will now demand total allegiance to his war and destroy those who voice any doubts.”

Seen from Ukraine, the death of Alexei Navalny takes on a different tone, as Paulina Siegień notes in Krytyka Polityczna: “he was not one of those whom Ukrainians consider an ally in their struggle”, especially given his belated condemnation of the occupation of Crimea and the Russian invasion. “Ukrainians have every right to criticise the character and activities of Navalny, and the organisations linked to him. They also have the right to resent the Russian opposition for not supporting them sufficiently […], or most of them simply have no desire to have any kind of relationship with the Russians, whatever their opinions”, she writes.

The bad

Is this the final blow for Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal” government in Hungary? Massive demonstrations in several Hungarian cities following the resignation of the President of the Republic, Katalin Novák, and the former Minister of Justice, Judit Varga, after revelations made by the independent outlet 444.hu about Katalin Novák’s decision to pardon a man convicted of covering up a child sexual abuse case, might lead one to think so. In Visegrad Insight, Iván László Nagy reconstructs the sequence of events that led to “one of the most turbulent weeks in modern Hungarian politics”, and points out that this is the second time that an Orbán-backed head of state has had to resign, the first being Pál Schmitt in 2012, following a plagiarism case. For their part, Szabolcs Panyi (Direkt 36) and Sarkadi Zsolt (Telex) tell VSquare about the crucial role played by the head of the Hungarian Reformed Church, Zoltán Balog, a close associate of Katalin Novák and former Orbán minister, in granting the presidential pardon. Finally, in HVG, Istvan Mudra Márton traces the history of the paedophilia case at the root of the scandal, which dragged on for 13 years, and in which “the brutal political interference with which Viktor Orbán is trying to keep his grip on things cannot completely prevent the pieces of the jigsaw from fitting together”.

The good

Will Julian Assange be extradited to the United States, where he faces up to 175 years in prison? The UK High Court will have to rule on his appeal against Washington’s extradition request, which aims to have the WikiLeaks co-founder tried on espionage charges for publishing more than 250,000 confidential military and diplomatic documents in 2010. Christophe Deloire and Rebecca Vincent, respectively Secretary General and Director of Campaigns at Reporters Without Borders (RSF), tell The Guardian how they have met Assange several times since August 2023 in Belmarsh prison (London), where he has been held since 2019. They denounce “the myriad obstacles” they have faced in their mission to provide Assange with legal support, as well as the difficulties in following the hearings in his case, and the fact that he has not been allowed to attend these hearings since January 2021, as well as “his worrying state of mental health and his risk of suicide”.

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