Navalny holds up a mirror to our own hypocrisy

In the week of the Pandora Papers, on October 5, at the Warsaw Security Conference political prisoner Alexei Navalny was awarded the 2021 Knight of Freedom Award. The former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves held the laudatio. Instead of pronouncing obvious words of praise for Navalny, Ilves lambasts the West that helps criminal politicians and oligarchs to rob their people. 'We have become partners in crime, colluding with the enemies of liberty, of our Enlightenment heritage of rule of law and human rights'. Thus there is no ground for moral superiority, warns Ilves, echoing Navalny's critique of Western hypocrisy.   

navalny berlijnAlexei Navalny in Berlin, recovering from the novichok poisoning

by Toomas Hendrik Ilves

We are here to honor Alexei Navalny, a man hounded, persecuted, beaten, poisoned and jailed for standing up to a thuggish autocracy that is well on its way to classic totalitarian rule. His crime? Peacefully using his fundamental human right of freedom of expression to challenge a regime held together by storm-troopers, violence and murder.  

Navalny’s story is not a new one. In the decade before the collapse of communism, we saw this tale unfold over and over again. Iosif Brodsky, Natan Sharansky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov and hundreds of others were persecuted by that real-life Mordor, the USSR. There is a difference, however. Back in those days, when I was a young research analyst and later the Estonian service director at Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty (RFE-RL), we in the West at least had the moral clarity to stand up to the thugs, to raise these issues with our governments, in our parliaments, in all possible international fora.

Helping to maintain that moral clarity, paradoxically, the commies were at least ideologically anti-capitalist. Commissars and Politburo members could hardly buy villas on the Riviera, ski chateaux in St. Moritz, apartments in the U.S. president’s skyscraper or dock their 100 meter yachts in St. Tropez or Piraeus. On our side, taking money from totalitarians counted as bribery or as espionage — bringing severe criminal penalties and social disgrace. 

Today, the liberal democratic West has abandoned that one-time clarity. We have become partners in crime, colluding with the enemies of liberty, of our Enlightenment heritage of rule of law and human rights. We are the unindicted co-conspirators of our own demise and in the destruction of Russia, collapsing under the weight of its corruption and thievery.  

In my brief laudatio to Alexei Navalny, I shall for that reason not focus on his immense contributions to exposing the miasma of corruption in Russia. That only serves to give us a smug and utterly false sense of moral superiority. To truly honor Navalny, we instead must confront the stench of our own liberal democratic West.  

That stench swirls from our own corrupt politicians and political parties, from our naïve and greedy governments, and even the most prestigious, centuries-old universities  It swirls from businesses who prize profit over justice, truth and freedom. It swirls from bankers, lawyers and accountants who launder money and reputations.  

It is this corruption, our corruption,  that aids, abets and sustains, indeed nourishes the murderous looting of the Kremlin’s boyars and their minions as well as other odious regimes around the globe. 

Ladies and Gentlemen: 

Some 15 years ago I coined the eponymous term Schröderizatsiya. I remained the anonymous author until my dear friend Edward Lucas outed me in the Economist after I left office, when it no longer mattered who had coined this all too useful neologism. Zatsiya in the wonderfully supple Russian language is a suffix denoting a more general process, equivalent to “-zation” as in Schröderization but tied to Russian, a country most effectively using bribery today.  

That is not to say others are innocent. From China to Azerbaijan, from the Philippines to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, dirty money extorted from the weak and powerless swamps our political processes and corrupts our system. 

Be it European Parliamentarians white-washing human rights violations in the Caucasus or a leading British University taking money from the Chinese Communist Party on condition of purging unflattering academic studies in its premier journal, the fabric of the West is sodden with corruption.  

It is our corruption,  that aids, abets and sustains, indeed nourishes the murderous looting of the Kremlin’s boyars and  other odious regimes around the globe

Worse, we cannot even speak about this publicly, for fear of bankruptcy. The great Catherine Belton, author of the searingly insightful Putin’s People, is facing a ruinous personal lawsuit brought by the regime’s insiders. The aim is not just to crush her, but to deter anyone else who dares to investigate the nexus of intelligence, business, organized crime and state power that gave birth to and sustains Russia’s ruling elite.  

At times it’s not even money. Sometimes it’s greed for power. Many of you will recall how the European People’s Party (EPP) would not expel a party fundamentally inimical to its professed values, merely to maintain a larger representation in the European Parliament. Listing all the faces of corruption in the West would take not just an hour, but days, weeks and years. Ladies and Gentlemen, we don’t have the time to admire the problem. We have start fixing it.  

Alexei Navalny was prosecuted on the most ridiculous of trumped-up charges — failing to show up for a parole meeting while recovering from Novichok poisoning administered by the regime charging him. His real crime, however, was a film exposing the trashy, grotesquely tasteless palace built by the dictator-in-chief in the Kremlin, redolent of all the nouveau riche clichés of wannabe monarchs and tin-pot despots from Trump to Yanykovych. While these criminals are not embarrassed by their tastelessness, they nonetheless do fear the anger of their publics who live in poverty, where 40% of Russians have had to cut back on their food consumption, where food shortages loom and where 20% has to be satisfied with outdoor plumbing. We in the West do not fear the embarrassment. We just take the money. 

Honored Guests,

In one of his last books, Property and Freedom, the late Richard Pipes, the great historian of Russia and the Soviet Union, explains much of why not only Russian oligarchs and kleptocrats, but all authoritarian regimes need to park their money in the West. But especially in Russia, where rule of law basically held only from February to November of 1917.  

Where there is no rule of law, where the autocrat can steal or take away anyone’s property, his over-riding fear is the Kantian categorical imperative might come to apply to him. That someone will do to him what he has done to enrich himself. Thus, the despot’s only recourse is ship his money to a place that enjoys rule of law, be it London or Dubai, New York or Tallinn — anywhere where the Rechtstaat means that people earn their wealth through work, not through theft or pumping it out of land that belongs to the population, which is just a more indirect form of theft. 

This rule of law has made us prosperous. We know the state cannot illegally take away our property. But it also allows authoritarian regimes to maintain their stolen treasure and persecute people like Alexei Navalny, as well countless others. If we genuinely care about freedom, therefore, it is time to change our own laws. The UK’s Unexplained Wealth Orders, which unfortunately are not widely or strictly applied, should be copied and rigorously enforced across our rule-of-law-based West. Anonymous shell companies that, for example, allowed the consiglieri of Russia’s greatest (non-governmental) mafia don, Semyon Mogilevich, to buy apartments in Trump Tower, must be forbidden.  

Far stricter visa regulations and vetting to keep out GRU agents who come to murder our people in Europe are a sine qua non, as is strict enforcement of visa bans, extended to include heads of state and government. Instead of letting mass murderers roam freely, we must prosecute European officials such as the erstwhile foreign minister of Austria Michael Spindelegger, who intervened with his country’s own border police to release Mikhail Golovatov, wanted on an Interpol warrant, convicted in absentia for murdering 13 Lithuanians, all just to please the Russian government. 

As I said, the corruption is rampant. Our own schröderizatsiya, our Francois Fillons and Karin Kneissls, our Lipponens and others who leave government to claim their rewards and go work for so-called “independent” energy companies owned by kleptocratic regimes are the ones buying the rope that, to paraphrase Lenin, the authoritarians will use to hang us. Us, not them. 

This should be one more crucial reason to honor the courage of Alexei Navalny. He not only exposes a mirror to the grotesque thievery and destruction of human rights in Russia, he also holds a mirror up to our own complicity in his persecution and in the backwardness and poverty of Russia, day after day, euro and dollar millions after millions that end up in the pockets of our own leaders, banks, universities, film studios, political parties and lobbyists for the enemies of our open societies. 

Thank you. 

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