How the Nobel Peace Prize launches the Russian opposition schism

MOSCOW – If you lived in Putin’s Russia, what compromises would you make?

Dmitri A. Muratov, editor-in-chief of a Moscow newspaper, has made his choice. He accepts donations from a business mogul with ties to the Kremlin, refuses to publish articles on the personal lives of the Russian elite, and has asked President Vladimir V. Putin to help children in need of expensive drugs .

In contrast, Aleksei A. Navalny, the most prominent Russian opposition leader, wrote a letter to his supporters published Wednesday urging them to resist any form of compromise: “We do not negotiate with terrorists who take hostages.

Mr Navalny is in the ninth month of a one-year jail sentence, while Mr Muratov shared the Nobel Peace Prize last week with Filipino journalist Maria Ressa for his “efforts to protect the freedom of expression “. Many Mr Navalny fans, who were hoping the jailed politician would get the prize, reacted with outrage, mocking Mr Muratov for his willingness to engage with authorities they believed were only strengthening power. by Mr. Putin.

It was a moment that crystallized one of the many fault lines dividing various critics of the Kremlin: Is the best approach for those who want change one of principled and unyielding resistance – or working for it? improvements within the existing system?

“Look, you are living a life on Earth,” Muratov said in an interview this week, defending the latter approach against the wave of fury directed at him by his fellow Russians on Facebook and Twitter. “Do you want to jot down these comments online or try to make people’s lives better?” “

Anger has shown how atomized and weakened the Russian opposition is – especially as authorities step up their crackdown on dissent, forcing activist groups and the media to shut down and more and more dissidents and dissenters. journalists in exile. In the Kremlin, seeing the war of words in the opposition over Mr Muratov’s prize must have sparked “euphoria,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of R.Politik, a political analysis firm.

“When you live under the barrel of a gun, such times lead to divisions,” Ms. Stanovaya said. “The authorities are doing a tremendous job capitalizing on this. “

Indeed, Mr Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry S. Peskov congratulated Mr Muratov, calling him talented and courageous.

Mr Navalny, in prison, was unable to offer an instant reaction, even as one of his colleagues in exile criticized the Nobel Committee for making “pretentious and hypocritical speeches”. Monday, Mr. Navalny congratulated Mr. Muratov. He noted that the past assassinations of journalists from Mr. Muratov’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper had recalled “the high price that those who refuse to serve the authorities must pay”.

Mr. Muratov co-founded Novaya Gazeta in 1993, with funding from Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader. Six journalists working for Novaya were murdered; their black-and-white portraits in black frames are lined up in a corner of a conference room at the newspaper’s headquarters in Moscow.

While other media have shut down under pressure or have been co-opted by the authorities, Novaya has maintained its independence and has often criticized Mr Putin. His 2017 report on the torture and murders of gay men in the Chechen Caucasus Republic sparked a wave of global outrage. After a talk by Novaya Last year, over an oil spill in the arctic, a Russian court sentenced mining giant Norilsk Nickel – run by one of the richest men in the country – to pay a fine of $ 2 billion .

But Mr Muratov admits that he is holding back what has become a particularly explosive kind of investigative journalism in today’s Russia: exploring the hidden wealth of Mr Putin and those around him. Much of this wealth, journalists from other publications discovered, is held by family members or suspected extramarital partners and their children. Mr. Muratov says that although his reporters are also investigating corruption, “we do not enter into people’s privacy.”

“When it comes to children and women, I stop,” said Muratov.

Online media that published these more aggressive inquiries have been banned or declared “foreign agents” in recent months, with many of their editors and reporters forced into exile. Novaya has managed to continue its activities, despite widespread speculation that it has also been the subject of a crackdown.

“We are an influential newspaper, which means we have to be able to have a dialogue,” Muratov said. “As soon as you start to offend people, whether or not they are in power, you lose influence. People don’t talk to you anymore.

Mr Muratov has used his influence and connections for causes beyond press freedom – particularly to help children with spinal muscular atrophy, or SMA, a rare muscle wasting disease for which the most effective treatments are extremely. expensive. He says he got involved – and started fundraising for patients – after one of his reporters spoke to him early last year about the suffering of families battling the disease.

Andrey L. Kostin, president of VTB, Russia’s second largest bank, donated $ 1 million to the cause. He was one of the most The United States imposed sanctions in 2018 for playing “a key role in promoting Russian malicious activities.”

And last February, seeking further help, Mr Muratov brought a list of names of young people in need of expensive treatment to an informal meeting between Mr Putin and Russian editors. Two weeks later, Mr. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, called and told Mr. Muratov that “a directive had been given” to help him.

“You can say, ‘He’s an accomplice of the regime,’ but tell the parents of children with ADS,” Muratov said. “Tell them the bankers who work for the state gave money and you can’t take the money, and the child will die.”

Another well-connected financier, Sergei Adonyev, came to Mr Muratov’s rescue in 2014 for a different reason. Mr Muratov’s diary was faltering financially, and Mr Adonyev, a telecommunications entrepreneur who had long been associated with a Russian state-owned company, began donating, according to Mr Muratov.

Yet after a year in which Russia’s crackdown on dissent has reached a new intensity, there is no guarantee that Novaya will survive. Mr Putin said so himself on Wednesday when a CNBC host Hadley Gamble asked him about Mr Muratov on stage at an energy conference in Moscow.

“If he starts using the Nobel Prize as a shield to violate Russian law, it means he is doing it consciously for attention, or for other reasons,” Putin said, avoiding the kudos. “Whatever his achievements, each person must understand clearly and clearly: Russian laws must be respected. “

Mr Muratov said he would not keep any of the roughly $ 500,000 in prizes he won from the Nobel Prize. He will contribute about half to a medical fund for Novaya employees and about $ 20,000 to endow a journalism award named in honor of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist from Novaya who was killed in 2006.

The rest will go to charity, he said, including a foundation called Circle of Good that helps children with rare diseases. Mr. Putin signed an ordinance creating it last January.

Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior member of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank who previously worked as editor-in-chief of Novaya, said last week’s uproar highlighted a weakness in Mr. Navalny’s movement: that it is focusing about himself as a leader and that he is reluctant to consider the opinions of others. views, prevented him from cementing a larger coalition.

The vitriol was also on display ahead of Russia’s parliamentary elections last month, when some liberals – including Mr Muratov – bristled at calls from Camp Navalny to unite around the Communist candidates in a coordinated rebuke against Mr Putin.

“Unfortunately, this intolerance and aggressiveness,” Kolesnikov said, “divides people oriented towards democracy”.

Oleg Matsnev contributed reports.

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