Alexei Navalny, Russia’s leading fighter for democracy, returned home this week, after recuperating in Germany from a Kremlin attempt to murder him by poison as he campaigned in Siberia.
It is almost impossible to comprehend the bravery it took for Navalny to take that risk. He faced a phalanx of Russian police at the airport, and a swift mock trial in a police station, after which he was jailed, at the total mercy of would-be Kremlin killers.
Yet there is something painfully appropriate about Navalny taking that gamble the very same week Donald Trump leaves office. Trump will be recalled by historians mainly for his Big Lie about a “stolen” election that incited thousands of his fans to sack the U.S. Capitol.
But Navalny’s bravery sends another message altogether, reminding Americans that peaceful elections can no longer be taken for granted in this country.
“What makes Navalny do what he did?” an Iranian-born artist named Marhan Moghaddam tweeted this week. “To teach all the cowards in our world you have choices (if you want to be) on the right side of history.” Every GOP senator voting whether to convict Trump on inciting insurrection will face such a choice in the coming weeks.
The impact of the Capitol insurrection on foreign allies and adversaries cannot be overestimated — along with the sight of 25,000 national guardsmen on Washington, D.C., streets. Chinese media is crowing about chaos at the Capitol, and bragging that China’s free market authoritarianism outdoes broken U.S. democracy.
Despite their relief at the end of the Trump presidency, European allies are uncertain about the stability of America’s democratic institutions after the insurrection at the Capitol. There is genuine shock at the 147 GOP legislators who voted against certifying the election.
Meanwhile, Trump will continue to promote the Big Lie from Mar-a-Lago, having been the first president in 150 years to boycott his successor’s inauguration.
However, the Biden team’s reaction to the Navalny affair demonstrates that the new president , unlike Trump, appreciates that democracy must be supported abroad — and cherished at home.
While Trump steadfastly refused to criticize the Kremlin’s poisoning of Navalny, in contrast to furious European leaders, Biden directly called out “the Russian state” for using the Soviet-era chemical weapon, Novichok. “As president,” a Biden statement said, “I will do what Donald Trump refuses to do: work with our allies and partners to hold the Putin regime accountable for its crimes.”
And Jake Sullivan, Biden’s choice for national security adviser, tweeted this week: “Mr. Navalny should be immediately released, and the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable.”
These statements are important, and not only to put the new administration on record as willing to deal firmly with Putin.
This is a time when democracy is on the backfoot, as America has floundered badly in its COVID-19 response, along with Britain, and to a far lesser extent other European allies. All face economic crises. Navalny’s courage — as a symbol of democracy’s continued allure and his willingness to fight for it against huge odds — challenge the claim by Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping that democratic systems no longer hold appeal.
Think for a moment of what Navalny is up against, and you see why this symbol is so powerful. Despite constant Kremlin threats, arrests and physical attacks, he has amassed a broad, youthful following, using videos outing corruption by Kremlin cronies. Banned from running himself, he is focused on electing reformers at local levels.
He was poisoned last summer by Russian intelligence agents, who applied a banned chemical agent to his clothing. A cartoon in London newspaper, The Times, this week, shows Putin in a face mask and an apron holding a huge needle, and about to plunge it into a defenseless Navalny, saying “Back for your second dose, Mr. Navalny?”
Yevgenia Albats, a leading Russian opposition journalist, told me that Navalny would be equally vulnerable to other kinds of assassination while in prison, ordered by the Kremlin. “The probability is some criminal might kill him if he goes to jail.”
Yet when I last interviewed Navalny in Moscow, in 2018, he was ready to risk everything. “I’m a democrat and want rule of law and for Russia to be part of Europe,” he told me, in a modern office, filled with young volunteers, who raise money, and organize rallies. Did he fear assassination? He told me “They (the Kremlin) missed a chance when I was less popular.” But he added, “Maybe they are still saving this tool.”
So the Biden team should immediately join with European leaders to make clear to Putin that any harm to Navalny will result in sanctions against assets of Putin and his Kremlin cronies.
If Navalny is ready to die for democracy, surely 17 GOP senators can find the courage to vote for democracy by convicting Donald Trump of incitement, and ensuring he cannot run again for office? Or will their cowardice shame our country, and prove that our democracy is indeed in deep decline?
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at email@example.com