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Alexei Navalny, who for a decade challenged the Kremlin in street protests and elections, survived an assassination attempt and is now in a Russian prison, on Wednesday was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Union’s top human rights award.

Through it all, Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, has never let up in his advocacy for peaceful political change in his country’s faltering democracy. He was awarded the prize while serving a more than two-year sentence in a Russian penal colony.

The prize was as much a recognition of Navalny’s decadelong role leading the Russian political opposition as a stinging rebuke of President Vladimir Putin, whom Navalny has accused of subverting his country’s post-Soviet democracy to remain in power. Navalny has also accused Putin of ordering his assassination.

Referring to Navalny, David Sassoli, president of the European Parliament, wrote on Twitter, "He has fought tirelessly against the corruption of Vladimir Putin’s regime.

"This cost him his liberty and nearly his life,” Sassoli added. "Today’s prize recognizes his immense bravery and we reiterate our call for his immediate release.”

Despite repeated arrests and attacks, Navalny has remained an unflinching critic of Putin — a former KGB officer who, in Navalny’s telling, skimmed Russia’s oil profits to enrich his friends and his entourage in the security services, and then used that influence to keep a hold on power.

Navalny used street politics and social media to build a tenacious opposition movement, even after much of the independent news media in Russia was squelched and other critics were driven into exile or killed in unsolved murders.

The other finalists for this year’s Sakharov Prize were a group of prominent Afghan women who pushed for equality and human rights in Afghanistan, and Jeanine Anez, former interim president of Bolivia, who served for a year after former President Evo Morales was forced out in 2019.

Among the Afghan women cited as finalists was Zarifa Ghafari, one of Afghanistan’s few female mayors, who has been subjected to death threats and several assassination attempts culminating in the killing of her father in 2020. Also cited were Freshta Karim, the director of a nonprofit, Charmaghz, that converted public buses into mobile libraries for children in Kabul, and Anisa Shaheed, a journalist with Tolo, Afghanistan’s largest broadcaster.

Established in 1988, the prize is named after nuclear physicist and Nobel Peace laureate, Andrei D. Sakharov, who led the Soviet Union’s development of the hydrogen bomb and subsequently became an indefatigable advocate for human rights.

Past winners include Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousufzai, a Pakistani activist for women’s rights who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uyghur intellectual who spent two decades trying to defuse tensions between oppressed Muslim Uyghurs in China and the Han people, who are the dominant ethnic group in that country.

Navalny, who is 45, had been considered a front-runner for the Nobel Peace Prize this year. That it went instead to a Russian newspaper editor, Dmitri A. Muratov, who shared the award with journalist Maria Ressa of the Philippines, revealed a divide within the Russian opposition over questions of compromising with the authorities.

The Nobel Prize seemed to favor an approach of dialogue. Muratov has cooperated with business tycoons and Kremlin officials and has said that he does not pry into the personal lives of the elite in his news coverage. The Kremlin even congratulated him.

Navalny, in contrast, has rejected compromises. His first prosecution, for example, followed his refusal to bend on a seemingly small matter — the location of a street protest.

He has laid bare corruption in Russia’s ruling families, and he has paid the price in repeated arrests. "We don’t negotiate with terrorists who take hostages,” Navalny wrote in a letter to his supporters this month.

The European Parliament award could therefore be seen as a nod to Navalny’s brand of unbending, though peaceful, opposition. There was no immediate reaction from the Kremlin to Navalny’s award.

And congratulations were not, predictably, forthcoming from pro-government politicians, either. The prize only showed Navalny is a "henchman” of the West, said Sen. Andrei Klimov. Leonid Slutsky, the chair of the international affairs committee in the Russian parliament, said the prize had become "another political instrument to legalize meddling in the affairs of sovereign states.”

Police pressure on Navalny’s organization has been constant. Just Wednesday, the day the prize was awarded, authorities issued an arrest warrant for one of the lawyers in his group, Lyubov Sobol, who had fled Russia over the summer.

Last year, the Sakharov Prize was awarded to the democratic opposition of Belarus represented by the Coordination Council, an initiative of women, political and civil society figures in the country.

The collective organized peaceful mass protests that saw thousands of Belarusians take to the streets last year after the presidential election in August, to demonstrate against Aleksandr G. Lukashenko’s claim of a landslide victory.

This year’s prize was awarded as the European Parliament celebrates the 100th anniversary of Sakharov’s birth, in 1921. The ceremonial awarding of the prize is scheduled for Dec. 15 in Strasbourg, France.

According to his sentence, Navalny will remain in prison in Russia through the ceremony. In a written interview with The New York Times in August, Navalny described a dystopian world behind bars, including more than eight hours per day of forced watching of Russian state television and propaganda films.

"You need to imagine something like a Chinese labor camp, where everybody marches in a line and where video cameras are hung everywhere,” Navalny said of the conditions. "There is constant control and a culture of snitching.”

Prison, in Russia and elsewhere, has forged or broken political dissidents for decades, including past recipients of the Sakharov Prize. The prize was first awarded in 1988 jointly to Mandela of South Africa and Anatoly T. Marchenko, a Soviet dissident. Mandela was freed and became South Africa’s president; Marchenko died in prison.

The Kremlin for years dismissed Navalny as an unpatriotic gadfly, calling him a tool of Western intelligence agencies and emphasizing early anti-immigrant policies that Navalny had supported to try to tar him as a racist with nationalist views.

That Navalny has survived to receive the prize defies the odds. In August 2020 he became violently ill and fell into a coma. He was evacuated to Germany for treatment, where laboratories found traces of a Soviet-designed chemical weapon, Novichok, that can be lethal to the touch.

Security agents had poisoned Navalny’s underwear, according to the open-source investigative group Bellingcat, Navalny and Western governments. Navalny, who is known for his use of humor in politics, took to calling Putin "the poisoner of underpants.”

Nonetheless, Navalny has remained upbeat about Russia’s long-term prospects for political change.

"The Putin regime is an historical accident, not an inevitability,” he said in the written interview from prison in August. "Sooner or later, this mistake will be fixed, and Russia will move on to a democratic, European path of development. Simply because that is what the people want.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company
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