JOHN MENADUE. Alexey Navalny has roused a democratic Russia. Turnbull and Bishop are too busy sleeping to care.

In Australia we conjure Russia through the basest of filters: take your pick of Pauline Hanson expressing her admiration for Russia’s autocrat Vladimir Putin, or of the sometime boxer-sometime- Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s vows to ‘shirtfront’ said autocrat.  

If we leave thinking about Russia here, we do ourselves and Russia a great disservice.

Russia’s people need to hear our government’s voice of support, right now.

After many years of mute acceptance of their police state, Russians are standing up to the corrupt power vertical that runs and rips off their country and its people.

A little over a week ago, thousands of anti-corruption protesters crowded into central town squares from Moscow and St Petersburg to Vladivostok in the East, Kaliningrad enclave in the West and over 90 cities and towns between.

What made this most notable was the strong presence of young Russians at the rallies and the fact that they were held in the provinces, not just in politically-sophisticated Moscow and ‘Peter’. Mainstream political protests in Russia’s long-suffering regions are almost unheard of. Something big was happening.

The lightning rod for these rallies was the remarkable work of one man and his immensely courageous team. Alexei Navalny is a tall, handsome Russian lawyer in his early forties. He’s the most prominent and fearless opposition leader in that country today. Time magazine has in the past listed him as one of the top influential thinkers in the world. Having been beaten (only just)to a possibly rigged run-off election for the powerful Mayorship of Moscow in 2013 (Putin’s man unsurprisingly won that race). Navalny has since announced his intention to run – presumably against Putin – in the 2018 Russian Presidential election, on an anti-corruption platform.

Until 2015, Navalny’s voice was joined by that of Boris Nemtsov, a charismatic former deputy Prime Minister under Yeltsin and outspoken critic of Russian State corruption. Nemtsov was assassinated on a bridge near Red Square in February of that year.

Navalny’s efforts against Russian corruption are not just hot air- his remarkable forensic accounting examination of the corrupt billions of Russian Prime Minister and former President Dmitry Medvedyev was launched recently as a youtube film. Millions of Russians have since watched the film online: it exposes Medvedyev for siphoning billions through charitable funds. The funds were in fact fealty payments from the country’s top oligarchs. They fuelled Medvedyev’s lifestyle of luxury secret villas, yachts and vineyards. Navalny’s team used drones with cameras to film all these secret villas from the air, which brought the obscene extent of the rort home to ordinary Russians.

Churchill famously called Russia ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, but it appears that for most of its history, Russia’s political system has been simpler: one might argue that it has been, and remains in essence, a feudal system, with the King at the top and the Dukes and Lords and minor landholders all jockeying to curry favour.

One might presume that many Russians would already have assumed privately that such corruption was the norm for most if not all top Russian politicians and businessmen. What Navalny’s remarkable investigation did was to provide the evidence in compelling detail. It was this video that drove the crowds to protest.

I cannot recommend Navalny’s Medvedyev corruption video (with subtitles) highly enough, for its thoroughness, but also for its wonderfully black sense of humour. In it you will see a principled young leader of his country in full flight:

This video paralysed the Kremlin into silence at the same time that the South Korean leader was impeached and jailed along with her own cronies, for crimes in a similar vein. The contrasting responses of these governments have not been lost on many ordinary Russians.

Alexey Navalny himself was arrested at the protests last week. He has been arrested many times before, but this time, a suspended sentence hangs over his head. In the week since the protests, Navalny’s entire Anti-Corruption Foundation – the atelier of the Medvedyev expose and of many others like it – was trashed, its contents confiscated and Navalny’s whole team arrested.

We should all pray that Navalny is considered too problematic a foe now for the Russian autocracy to dispatch, as so many others appear to have been dispatched, who spoke truth to power.

We should also demand that our own government speak in the strongest terms on Navalny’s behalf.

What irony that at the turn of the last century, Russia’s revolutionary agitators placed Australia on the highest pedestal of admiration for its democratic institutions, plain speaking and rule of law. Let us be the inheritors of that mantle again.

As of today, our ministerial media centres don’t even mention Navanly’s arrest or the protests.

Our Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, that grand liberal after-dinner speaker, has not issued a formal press release. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop – she who so enjoyed her time ‘upgraded to business class’ – speaking earnestly from the UN pulpit with Australia as Security Council chair – hasn’t bothered to publish a press release calling for Navalny’s release either.

Our government must speak in the strongest terms on these matters, which affront democracy.

If Turnbull and Bishop are having trouble finding the words, this recent statement from a US Republican Senator would do: he at least hasn’t lost his moral compass:

“Putin’s thugocracy is on full display. The United States government cannot be silent about Russia’s crackdown on peaceful protesters. Free speech is what we’re all about and Americans expect our leaders to call out thugs who trample the basic human rights of speech, press, assembly and protest”[i].



John Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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7 Responses to JOHN MENADUE. Alexey Navalny has roused a democratic Russia. Turnbull and Bishop are too busy sleeping to care.

  1. I speak Russian, and I think I can tell whether people are speaking genuine. Navalny passes that test easily.

    On the other hand could he and his Russian friends alone have amassed that avalanche of disgusting anti-Medvedev corruption data? Maybe there was some outside help.

  2. Avatar Tony Kevin says:

    I would like to comment further on the important comment by Chris suggesting Aleksei Navalny is a ‘Harvard-trained political agitator’. This is stretching truth, almost to the point of being fake news. I read the referenced website: seems heavily anti-US and anti-NATO. It is not a website for which I would be comfortable writing. I then read the very detailed Wikipedia file ‘Aleksei Navalny bio’. It says in the ‘Awards and Honours’ section that:

    ‘Navalny was a World Fellow at Yale University’s World Fellows Program, aimed at “creating a global network of emerging leaders and to broaden international understanding” in 2010.[205] In 2011, Foreign Policy magazine named Navalny to the FP Top 100 Global Thinkers, along with Daniel Domscheit-Berg and Sami Ben Gharbia of Tunisia, for “shaping the new world of government transparency”.[206] Foreign Policy picked him again in 2012.[207] He was listed by Time magazine in 2012 as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, the only Russian on the list.[208] In 2013, Navalny came in at No. 48 among “world thinkers” in an online poll by the UK magazine Prospect.[209].’

    Clearly, Navalny has been taken up in Western media in a big way since 2010: he is the latest Great White Hope for Russian Democracy (irony alert) However, the bio details in the Wikipedia file make clear that Navalny had already been active in Russian democratic politics and anti-corruption activities since 2000. He is 41, born in 1976, and joined the Russian United Democratic Party YABLOKO in 2000 at the age of 24. He started a non-party youth social movement called “Democratic Alternatyive” in 2005 when he was 29.

    According to the Yale fellowship citation on Navalny, referenced by Wikipedia, , he received the Yale award in 2010. The currently updated Yale citation reads:
    Alexey Navalny, 2010. Anti-Corruption Activist and Blogger. Founder, Minority Shareholders Association.
    Alexey is a lawyer, political and financial activist and politician. In September 2013 he ran in the Moscow mayoral election, challenging a Kremlin-backed incumbent for the seat. He came in second place with 27 percent of the vote but gained international recognition for the populist campaign targeting corruption and promoting democracy. Alexey has spearheaded legal challenges on behalf of minority shareholders in large Russian companies, including Gazprom, Bank VTB, Sberbank, Rosneft, Transneft, and Surgutneftegaz, through the Union of Minority Shareholders. He has successfully forced companies to disclose more information to their shareholders and has sued individual managers at several major corporations for allegedly corrupt practices. Alexey is also co-founder of the Democratic Alternative movement and was vice-chairman of the Moscow branch of the political party YABLOKO. In 2010, he launched RosPil, a public project funded by unprecedented fundraising in Russia. In 2011 he started RosYama, an organization combating fraud in the road construction sector.” 

    The Yale citation makes no mention of what Navalny was doing 2000-2010 . But it is clear from the Wikipedia bio details that Navalny had been doing important political and anti-corruption work since the very start of his political career in 2000. He seems to be a talented and idealistic homegrown opposition politician – in some ways , akin to what Yeltsin was in the late Gorbachev years. He is not a ‘Harvard-trained’ or Yale-trained ‘political agitator’, but a serious Russian political figure of substantial achievement at home.

    This is another example of how Cold War politics can become the kiss of death for Russian political aspirants or cultural leaders. As is clear from the life stories of Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, and Sakharov, Western honours can help but also besmirch Russians in their own cultural and political environment. As Pasternak understood, beware Greeks bearing gifts. ( See my ‘Return to Moscow’).

    On the basis of publicly available information about him, I continue to regard Navalny as a serious and charismatic talented Russian politician and presidential aspirant who is loyal to his country. This is a challenge the Russian political system will need to confront at home. It would be sad to see Navalny caught up in Cold War Mark Two political games.

  3. Avatar michael lacey says:

    Don’t know about that John too much interference from outside the country by people like Soros who fund these type of operations to create regime change. This gentlemen is not as pure as you make him out and has the smell of America all over him hailed as a hero in Western coverage because it suits them.

    What is reported less often about Navalny are his nationalist leanings, ties to neo-Nazi groups, xenophobic comments and extreme anti-immigrant views. References to Navalny’s nationalism in the West are usually ​buried or brushed off​, while the headlines sing his praises.

    America was not too concerned about the rape of Russia in the Yeltsin years because it suited their interests.

    Russian politics is not a clear-cut case of dictator vs. democrat — and Navalny provides a good example of just why we should be careful to avoid oversimplifying events we don’t fully understand.

  4. Avatar Colin Cook says:

    If US/Nato were not demonstrably threatening Russia, would Putin be in such a strong position domestically? The Bush promise not to extend NATO and present build-up in states bordering Russia – not the mention ‘democracy’ in the Ukraine – was a gross example of bad faith. There is nothing like an external threat to strengthen a dictator’s position.
    Do not forget the slogan, ‘America First’.

  5. Avatar ern armstrong says:

    It is indeed a shame that Australia seems to be devoid of statesmen among our leaders, among our diplomats. Failure, too often, is rewarded by soft jobs in the UK, USA, or similar holiday environs.

    It is stretching it a bit to expect the likes of Turnbull or Bishop to state Australia’s position about Russia’s dictatorship?, they have no idea how to do so.


  6. Avatar Chris says:

    On the other hand, Navalny could be viewed as a Harvard-trained political agitator delivering US interference in the Russian democratic process…

  7. Avatar Tony Kevin says:

    John, a good and timely piece, thank you. . There is more to say on this and I hope to say it in coming weeks. Regarding your suggestion that Australian leaders Turnbull and Bishop should protest, we would have more credibility if we had treated Russia and its government and people with proper respect in recent years. We have instead as a government behaved with habitual rudeness and disdain. We threatened to ‘shirtfront’ the leader of a UN Security Council member on his first and I would guess last visit to,Australia. We did not bother to attend at Ministerial level the most solemn 70th anniversary commemoration in Moscow in April 2015 of the end of Soviet Russia’s WW2 (the capture of Nazi Berlin), a war in which 26 million Russian and other former Soviet citozens lost those lives, bearing the brunt of the world’s struggle against Nazism. We did not bother to send official condolences to Russia after the terrorist sabotage by ISIS of a Russian civil airliner over Sinai, killing over 200 Russian holidaymakers mostly women and children. We continue to support provocative and needless NATO militarisation of the Baltic Republics against Russia. And so on. So we are not in a very good place as a government to protest about Aleksei Navalny’s so far fairly gentle by their historic standards of dealing with dissent, treatment by the Russian authorities . Let us choose our battles wisely, starting from a position of mutual respect with and in relation to Russia, a very important player in world affairs.

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