More Questions on the Yunus Nomination for the Sakharov Prize Arise

Professor Mahmoud Al ‘Asali, an Iraqi law professor and devout Muslim in a portion of Iraq controlled by ISIS, openly stood up to the murderous thugs who had taken over that part of his country. Their threats of murder and second-class citizenship against the ancient Christian population, he stated, were unacceptable and wrong. He challenged their authority; he challenged their interpretation of Islam; and he challenged their right to terrorize and brutalize. For this, he paid with his life.

Professor Al ‘Asali was, until last week, considered the front-runner for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Much like last year’s winner Malala Yousafzai (who was nearly murdered by the Taliban for attending school, has since become an advocate for women’s education globally, and was awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize), he was considered so heavy a favorite as to be beyond dispute.

Professor Al ‘Asali will not win the Sakharov Prize this year. The shortlist of candidates has now been winnowed to the EuroMaidan Movement, the protests that brought down the government of Ukraine earlier this year to the wild acclaim of the European Union; Denis Mukwege, a 59-year-old gynecologist from the Congo, whose hospital treats rape victims who have sustained serious injuries; and Azerbaijani Leyla Yunus.

As we noted before, Yunus’s is a troubling nomination that raises a number of questions, many of which revolve around how such a questionable candidate was ever nominated; by whom; and why. Yet those questions are even more pressing, now that the field has been cleared of its worthiest single candidates; and now, there are new ones.

Consider: As we discussed, the Greens — who have long ties to Moscow — are one of the largest sets of movers behind the Yunus nomination. Last week, Russians appeared outside the Azerbaijani embassy in Moscow to protest on Yunus’s behalf — a “spontaneously” organized protest in a country that does not lightly tolerate spontaneous protests. At roughly the same time, the head of Russia’s post-Soviet military bloc visited the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. There, he met with Armenian commanders and received briefings on Armenian military readiness. While bringing Armenia into its Eurasian Customs Union, Moscow has been increasingly favorable to its client state — which is all but at war with Azerbaijan.

Consider, too, that while Azerbaijan has pursued a middle-way policy with Russia and the West, Russia has also openly called for a more Russo-centric policy in the former Soviet Union — and Baku’s more independent stance may be provoking headaches. Azerbaijan’s natural gas reserves pose a potential threat to Gazprom — the biggest lever Russia has on the West, and a large part of why Europe has been hesitant to strike out at Russia for its actions in Ukraine.

And that, in turn, leads to EuroMaidan. Its nomination may be seen in Moscow as not only a continued round of applause for a movement popular in the West, but as a poke at Russia for its involvement in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. A Yunus nomination to balance EuroMaidan’s would surely take out some of that sting.

Is Yunus’s nomination merely a canny move to deflect Russian hostility from the EuroMaidan frontrunner? A sop to Russian pride? A chit offered by MEPs friendly to Russia? A move specifically orchestrated by Russia, to humiliate a natural gas rival and the enemy of its client state?

Today, we have even more questions than answers — questions that pose real hurdles to Yunus’s nomination.

Image Copyright Wikimedia Commons/ Vladislav Trifonov’s family archive