Curious it was to read that the Russian judiciary ruled last Wednesday that Alexei Navalny’s political network is an extremist movement. Its members should be grateful that the courts recognized it as a movement, given Navalny’s nationwide support has never exceeded 3 percent or so, but on paper they are now liable to arrest and prosecution and, if convicted of one or another charge, could be fined or imprisoned.
There have been no arrests, so far as has been reported. But think of all those chances Western intel agencies and their clerks in the press may now have to lionize a new cohort of oppositionists as Navalny’s heroic followers. Let us not forget, a kooky poseur journalist named Oleg Kashin had the nerve to call Navalny “Russia’s true leader” in a recent New York Times opinion piece.
There is no limit to the silliness in all matters Russian, it seems. At least not at the Times.
I say “curious” because, in the ordinary conduct of statecraft as we have had it for the past seven decades, the Moscow’s court’s ruling, exactly a week prior to President Joe Biden’s first summit with President Vladimir Putin, would have to be counted obtuse. Wouldn’t minding one’s manners — especially given that the Navalny network’s significance resides solely in the minds and news pages of Western propagandists — be the wise course?
I don’t think so. I have no clue as to the independence or otherwise of the Russian judiciary, but it is unthinkable the Russian leader did not know in advance of what the courts were about to determine. I think Russia was indeed minding its manners — a different and altogether more honorable set of manners than American pols and diplomats have exhibited lo these many decades.
In a sensible read, the court ruling was a calculated gesture in response to Biden’s commitment, announced during a Memorial Day speech, to confront Putin in Geneva on June 16 with the question of human rights in the Russian Federation. “We will not stand by and let him abuse those rights,” saith the man from Scranton.
We will not stand by, Moscow replied in so many words, as you grandstand at Russia’s expense. Recall in this connection, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, has lately made it a habit to note that Moscow is monitoring human rights in the U.S. since the Jan. 6 protests at the Capitol. “We have no taboo topics,” Lavrov said in evident response to Biden’s speech. “We will discuss whatever we think is necessary.”
It would be very wrong to take this matter as a passing spat as the Russian and American presidents find their feet with one another. In my view, the court judgment last week and Lavrov’s remarks on human rights as a two-way street make the Geneva encounter far more important than it may have otherwise turned out to be.
To understand this, we must go back and back and back some more until we reach the early 1950s, when newly independent India and newly socialist China were working out how two very large neighbors ought best to conduct their relations. It was while negotiating a bilateral agreement on this question in 1953 that Zhou Enlai, Mao’s cultured, subtle, farsighted premier, first articulated his Five Principles, the ethical code by which the People’s Republic would conduct its relations with all nations.
These were incorporated into the Sino–Indian Agreement of 1954 and have been justifiably well-known since. Note that four of the five have to do with respectful conduct and parity:
– Mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty;
– Mutual nonaggression;
– Noninterference in the internal affairs of other nations;
– Equality and mutual benefit among nations;
– Peaceful coexistence.
A year after New Delhi and Beijing signed their accord, Zhou’s principles were reiterated at the historically monumental conference of nonaligned nations Sukarno hosted at an Indonesian hill station called Bandung. When the Non–Aligned Movement was formally constituted six years after that, the Five Principles effectively became the non–West’s statement — of aspiration, of intent — to the West: This is what we have to offer the postcolonial world, the NAM said in so many words. This is our contribution to a new and peaceable world order. This is how we will manage our relations with others.
The United States never had any time for the NAM. As readers of a certain age will recall, it dismissed the movement, with-us-or-against-us style, as a badly dressed bunch of crypto–Communists or Soviet dupes. The decades since are an easy lesson in why Washington took this utterly awful position: It has not once, not in any given year, observed even one of Zhou’s principles. It has always, in any given year, abused all five.
One may admire or detest Vladimir Putin, but he is undeniably possessed of an excellent grasp of history, as many of his speeches attest. I doubt he thinks very specifically about the NAM or Zhou’s principles, but, without naming them, these are what he will have on the table when he meets Joe Biden.
This is the meaning of the oddly timed court judgment against Navalny’s apparatus and the message Lavrov conveyed in response to Biden’s Memorial Day speech: Internal affairs are to be resolved internally.
Geneva will mark the start of a long and welcome process. Its importance will lie in its formalization of a stance Russia — and China, too — have adopted since those two catastrophically stupid mistakes Biden and Secretary of State Blinken made last March, when Biden called Putin a murderer and tin-eared Blinken hollowly lectured the Chinese about human rights and democracy.
Beijing and Moscow have ever since stiffened their backs toward the U.S., giving as good as they get on all the questions with which Washington customarily browbeats others.
If we have begun a process, where will it lead? In my read to an excellent place, where nations mind the better set of manners noted above — Zhou Enlai’s manners, let us say.
Before this century is out, and very possibly before the midway mark, Zhou’s Five Principles stand to become the norm in international relations. Zhou’s true topic was parity between West and non–West. This will be achieved, and strange it is that the opening months of the Biden administration have opened us to this salutary prospect. The U.S. will otherwise lead us all into an egregiously messy period of history, and I do not think rising powers — Russia, China, India, others — will find this acceptable.
One other matter must be clarified as Geneva approaches.
I do not know the merits of the case against Navalny or, since last week, the ruling against his followers. But I have always found it curious that The New York Times and the other major dailies recite as rote that Navalny and his people consider the two charges of embezzlement (and the two convictions) that put him in jail in the first place to be “trumped up” or “politically motivated.” Why doesn’t the Times’ Moscow bureau do the gumshoe work and inform readers whether or not this is so?
True, Times’ Moscow correspondents are among the worst in my lifetime, but this kind of kabuki requires one to consider carefully whether the charges are indeed legitimate. My read: The legal case against Navalny probably holds water, and the American press uses the power of omission to avoid acknowledging this.
Pitiful, if this is the case.
The larger point here: We must learn to put all such questions aside in contexts such as we have now in U.S.–Russia relations. Anyone who has ever been in a Marxist reading group knows the importance of distinguishing between primary and secondary contradictions. Let us not forget the essential lesson, no matter anyone’s political stripe.
What is the primary contradiction here? It is Washington’s refusal to observe the principles of noninterference and sovereignty, and it is vital far, far beyond bilateral relations that Russia defends these. The Navalny case and the associated matter of human rights are, plainly and simply, a secondary contradiction — and one it is imperative to leave to Russians to resolve.
Geneva in June, a rather nice place to be. Let us see if Biden and Putin mind their manners — and whose manners these turn out to be.