No time to be silent
The already delicate situation involving the hospitalised Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny recently took a predictably tense turn. After being transferred for treatment to Germany, a test carried out by a German military laboratory confirmed the suspicions of Navalny's aides — he had been poisoned and the substance used was without a doubt a nerve agent from the Novichok group. As may be recalled the same nerve agent was also involved in the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the United Kingdom in 2018. With the addition of a few extra factors, the circumstances facing the German Government are similar to those faced by the UK Government back then. There is pressure on Angela Merkel's government to act decisively, just as there had been similar pressure on Theresa May's Government. As was the case back then, the Russian Government has categorically denied the accusations being made. The Kremlin has maintained the stance that the German doctors who examined Navalny were hasty and mistaken in their conclusions. The Speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament even went on to say that there was a need to constitute a committee and investigate the matter to find out whether foreign forces were involved in this alleged poisoning to cause tensions in Russia. While the official statement from the German Government was guarded, asking Russia to explain the matter, voices within and outside Merkel's Government have been more urgent and straightforward. Condemnations over the findings have already been made with UK's Johnson calling the findings "outrageous" and demanding an answer and the White House labelling the attack as "completely reprehensible".
As many commentators and organisations have noted, poisonings are not an uncommon fate for those who oppose the Russian regime. Many anti-Putin activists have stated similar experiences with poisoning. A prominent anti-Putin activist based in the US, Vladimir Kara-Murza has stated that such poisoning attacks have become the favourite tool of Russian security services. In Navalny's case, his spokeswoman suspects that the poison was slipped into a cup of black tea that Navalny drank at a Tomsk airport cafe. This ominously recalls the circumstances behind the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko due to a polonium laced cup of tea in a cafe in the heart of Mayfair. Just like Navalny, Litvinenko had made direct accusations against Putin himself.
Navalny is no simple critic. He is an anti-corruption campaigner whose popularity, particularly on social media has made him a major opposition figure to Putin's regime. His campaign against corruption started with blogs but has now expanded, becoming a movement that appeals to young voters with his sharp, undisguised criticism. For his efforts, Navalny was imprisoned, laden with charges that were later proven false, possibly poisoned in prison and otherwise reminded of the dangers of being a critic in Russia's present political climate. He nevertheless persevered and won a few major victories over Putin but has as yet failed to push Putin out of office. Indeed, his imprisonment on the false charges of embezzlement, later on, was used as a reason to bar him from running for the office in 2018. Yet he endured.
As he does now, still in a coma. Ultimately, while it is poetic to think of critics like Navalny triumphing against an authoritarian state by the strength of his resolve, it is really up to the international community to build pressure and bring justice to this case. As history has shown, authoritarians do not count on fooling the world regarding their misdeeds. What they count upon is the world simply not going far enough in establishing the truth and making any tangible reprisals. This is a test for Europe, for NATO and for all those who claim to live in a spirit of democracy and liberty. If multilateral bodies like NATO are to hold any relevance in the current day, they must act.