World

Alexei Navalny urges Russians to protest this weekend. New US president ready to work with allies on China. Indonesia opts for youth appeal on Covid-19 vaccinations. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Putin rival lands back in Moscow and back in jail

Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny boards a plane from Berlin to Moscow earlier this month.
Credit: Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP

Great power rivalry

United States: During the United States presidential campaign, Joe Biden was surprisingly dismissive of suggestions that China’s rise poses a threat to the status and power of America. “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man,” he famously said during the Democratic primaries. “They’re not competition for us.”

But Biden has since been forced to adjust his assessment.

This week, on the eve of the incoming president’s inauguration, Chinese data showed that its economy increased 2.3 per cent in 2020, making it the only major economy to grow last year. By contrast, US gross domestic product is expected to have shrunk by 4 per cent last year. China’s economy has largely returned to, or is exceeding, its pre-pandemic activity, and it is now expected to become the world’s wealthiest nation as soon as 2026.

Since his election victory, Biden has signalled he will adopt a tough stance towards China and will not immediately end Donald Trump’s trade war. His national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told CNN earlier this month that the incoming administration is deeply concerned about China’s human rights abuses, military aggression and trade practices. But, he said, Biden, unlike Trump, will try to work with allies to develop a collective approach towards China and will – where possible – co-operate with Beijing on challenges such as climate change.

Last week, Biden appointed veteran diplomat Kurt Campbell as his “Asia tsar”. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, co-written with Rush Doshi, another appointee to the Biden administration, Campbell wrote: “China’s growing material power has indeed destabilized the region’s delicate balance … Left unchecked, Chinese behavior could end the region’s long peace.”

In China, the Communist Party journal last week published a speech delivered by Xi Jinping last August that provided an equally anxious assessment of growing international tensions. “We face an external environment of increased headwinds and counter-currents, and we must prepare to respond to a series of new risks and challenges,” he said.

The neighbourhood

Indonesia: At an event broadcast live in Jakarta last week, Indonesian President Joko Widodo rolled up his sleeve and was injected with a Covid-19 vaccine to initiate his country’s mass immunisation drive. The president was accompanied by Raffi Ahmad, an actor, singer and television personality who has 49.5 million Instagram followers.

Raffi received the vaccine, as did other celebrities such as the rock singer Ariel (3.1 million Instagram followers) and the singer and writer Risa Saraswati (1.8 million Instagram followers).

The ploy was part of Indonesia’s unusual inoculation strategy, which involves vaccinating people aged 18 to 59 before the elderly. The government says it is concerned that its primary vaccine, produced by China’s Sinovac Biotech, has not yet been properly tested on older people. Some medical experts believe the government is trying to achieve herd immunity among younger people who are more likely to spread the virus. Such a plan is risky because there is little or no evidence that vaccines prevent transmission.

Indonesia’s other challenge is to combat public fears about the vaccine. A recent poll found 37 per cent of Indonesians were willing to be vaccinated, 40 per cent would consider it, and 17 per cent would refuse.

Health officials said the decision to give some of the first vaccine doses to celebrities was intended to “convey positive influence” about the vaccine, especially to younger people.

But the stunt backfired after images appeared on social media shortly after the televised vaccinations showing Raffi at a party without a mask and ignoring social distancing rules. Raffi apologised in a video posted on Instagram.

Democracy in retreat

Russia: On Monday, prominent Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny was jailed after flying to Moscow from Germany, where he had been recovering from an assassination attempt in August. Navalny had been poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok, the preferred poison of the Russian security services.

Inside a courtroom at a police station in Moscow, Navalny dismissed the trial as a farce and called for mass public protests this weekend. “There’s nothing these thieves in their bunkers fear more than people on the streets,” he said. “This is lawlessness of the highest order.”

Navalny was imprisoned for 30 days over a parole violation. On January 29, he will face another hearing involving the violation, which followed a conviction in 2017 for embezzlement – a charge he says was fabricated to prevent him contesting the 2018 presidential election.

During the hearing on Monday, Navalny appeared in court in front of a poster of Genrikh Yagoda, the head of Stalin’s secret police and organiser of the dictator’s show trials.

Navalny’s imprisonment prompted widespread condemnation, including a demand by the incoming US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, for Navalny’s immediate release.

On Tuesday, Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Navalny’s sentence was an “internal affair” and other countries had no right to interfere. “We have no intention of listening to these statements,” he said.

Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner, has been repeatedly arrested and detained. A report by the investigative website Bellingcat last month claimed that Navalny had been targeted by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), which followed him from 2017 before poisoning him last year in Siberia.

Spotlight: Covid-19 inquiry

An inquiry into the international handling of the Covid-19 pandemic released an interim report this week, levelling harsh criticism at China, the World Health Organization and the broader international community for their handling of the outbreak.

The 34-page report by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response specifically criticised the lack of urgency shown by China and the WHO during the early stages of the pandemic.

It said Chinese local and national authorities could have introduced stronger public health measures in January last year after the first cases were detected in Wuhan in late 2019. And it criticised the WHO for failing to convene its emergency committee until January 22, 2020, and for then waiting a week before issuing its highest alert level.

“There were lost opportunities to apply basic public health measures at the earliest opportunity,” the report said. “… Only a minority of countries took full advantage of the information available to them to respond to the evidence of an emerging epidemic.”

The panel also found that countries around the world had failed to take the threat of a pandemic seriously and had ignored the early signals of a serious outbreak involving human-to-human transmission.

“The world was not prepared … despite the numerous warnings issued that such an event was probable,” the report said. “… Public health containment measures should have been implemented immediately in any country with a likely case. They were not.”

The panel, chaired by former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark and former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was set up last year following a resolution by the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the WHO. A final report is due to be presented at the assembly in May.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 23, 2021 as "Putin critic lands back in Moscow and back in jail".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.