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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Norway blames Putin for critic’s death

Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre didn’t mince any words when reacting to the reported death of Alexei Navalny, jailed leader of the Russian opposition and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s biggest critic. Nor did Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide and many other national leaders currently gathered at a major international security conference in Munich.

Norwegians in the northern city of Kirkenes, close to the Russian border, were quick to place flowers on Friday next to a poster of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. He was a strong and fearless critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kirkenes-based Barents Observer reported more details of Navalny’s reported death and on conditions at the prison where he was being held. PHOTO: The Barents Observer/Thomas Nilsen

“He (Navalny) was a political prisoner who died in a Russian prison,” Støre told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “Russian authorities bear full responsibility for Navalny’s tragic death.”

It was unusually strong wording from the Norwegian prime minister who’s a career diplomat and worked hard to maintain good relations with Norway’s neighbour in the far north. All that changed as Putin became increasingly authoritarian and ultimately invaded another neighbour, Ukraine, two years ago.

Before that Putin had already moved into Crimea, cracked down on opposition at home and was widely believed to be behind the poisoning of Navalny, who later was allowed to seek life-saving treatment in Germany before bravely choosing to return to Russia and continue his opposition. He was immediately arrested upon arrival and has been in prison ever since. He was moved to a much more remote prison in Siberia, from which reports of his death were released just as world leaders were gathering for the annual Munich Security Council that followed a European foreign ministers’ meeeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Støre and three of his government ministers are all in Munich for the conference this weekend, where they were all reacting strongly to the reports of Navalny’s death. The vast majority believe he was murdered, or at the very least died as a result of the rough treatment he’s had since his arrest in 2020.

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre has been steadfast in his government’s aid to Ukraine. He’s pictured here earlier this month while announcing more Norwegian funding for the Ukrainian military. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

Støre called it “a great tragedy” that yet another champion of democracy has been silenced. “We have to look at it that way,” Støre told NRK. “To end your life in a prison camp in Siberia belongs to the totalitarian history of Russia that many hoped really was history.

“But now it’s been confirmed again that this is the way (Russian leaders) handle their opposition,” Støre said, adding that Norway will “clearly mark its opposition” to the upcoming Russian election in March. Norwegian leaders and those of most other democratic nations believe it’s been rigged in such a way that Putin has ensured himself yet another term in office.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, a longtime friend of Støre and former Norwegian prime minister, said he was “deeply saddened” by reports of Navalny’s death. Stoltenberg led Norway from 2005 to 2013, with Støre as his foreign minister, and also had worked hard to maintain good relations with Russia, only to see the country fall back into the grip of an authoritarian, increasingly ruthless, leader.

“All the facts have to be established,” said Stoltenberg in a statement released through NATO, but added that “Russia has serious questions to answer.” He said Navalny “has been a strong voice for freedom, for democracy for many years, and NATO and NATO allies have called for his immediate release for a long time.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, and Norwegian Defense Minister Bjørn Arild Gram (far left) at the Munich Security Conference on Friday, when word came that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny had died. PHOTO: NATO

Stoltenberg acknowledged that the cause of Navalny’s reported death remained unclear, while Navalny’s wife was questioning even whether the reports of his death were true. She worked closely with her husband and is also attending and speaking at the Munich Security Conference this weekend, where Russia’s war on Ukraine and Israel’s war on Gaza top the agenda.

The lack of further information around prison officials’ report that Navalny had died is “the reason it’s important to have all the facts established, and why Russia has some very serious questions to answer,” Stoltenberg added. “What we have seen is that Russia has become a more and more authoritarian power, that they have used oppression against opposition for many years. And of course, he was in jail, he was a prisoner, and that makes it extremely important that Russia now answer all the questions that will be asked about the cause of death.”

Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide called the reported death of Navalny “deeply tragic” and also pointed out that Navalny was a political prisoner who died in a Russian jail. He echoed Støre’s statement that Russian authorities bear full responsibilty for Navalny’s death.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide is also at the Munich Security Conference and reacted strongly to reports of Navalny’s death. PHOTO: KMD/Martin Lerberg Fossum

“Alexei Navalny will be remembered for his brave, fearless and relentless battle against corruption and abuse of power” in Russia, Eide said. “Through his fund against corruption he built up an impressive network and gave voices to many who have felt the Russian regime’s injustice.

“He has no suffered the greatest injustice himself. Our thoughts go to his family and survivors.”

Demonstrators gathered outside the Russian Embassy in Oslo on Friday after residents of Kirkenes lit candles around the poster of Navalny. The Norwegian-Russian association SmåRådina called his reported death “a shock for very many who had a small hope for a democratic Russia.” The group stated in a press release that Navalny will continue to be an inspiration for those who have “strong faith” that Russia can become and “democratic, open and fair.”

By Friday evening, the United Nations had called for a “full, credible and transparent investigation” into Navalny’s death, which was said to have “shocked” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

While Putin himself had no immediate comment, a spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry accused western leaders of jumping to conclusions regarding the cause of death. Russia’s state-controlled news bureau Tass reported that Russian officials has asked the US State Department to wait with its own accusations of blame until an autopsy report on Navalny’s death was available. Russians were also being warned not to mount any demonstrations of their own, according to news bureaus Ria and Reuters. Berglund



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