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Bozhidara Tsvetilova: What Does Alexei Navalny’s Sakharov Prize Mean for EU-Russia Relations?

Updated: Feb 9, 2022

On December 15th, 2021, The European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought was awarded to Alexei Navalny for his anti-corruption activism and promotion of democracy in Russia. The Prize was received by his daughter Daria Navalnaya, 20, as Navalny has been a political prisoner in a forced labor colony in Vladimir Oblast since February 2nd, 2021. The Russian opposition leader has become a national hero for many Russians due to his decade-long fight against human rights violations under Putin’s presidency. The Sakharov Prize represents the European Union’s recognition of and support for Navalny’s activism (Parrock 2021). President David Sassoli of the European Parliament acknowledged Navalny’s “fight for human dignity, for good governance and for the rule of law” as determining factors in this year’s Sakharov selection (EU Monitor 2021). How the prize will affect the already tense relationship between the EU and Russia remains to be seen.

Can the ‘Freedom of Thought Prize’ Distance Russia and the European Union Even Further?

A working EU-Russia relationship has always been a key objective and a strategic pursuit on the Union’s agenda. Collaboration between the two bodies is seen as highly desirable for the promotion of democratic values and norms in Russia, a country that has repeatedly made it clear that it does not appreciate foreign intervention (Massrali & Kaznowski 2021). However, awarding the Sakharov Prize to the Russian President’s strongest oppositional figure sends a more weighted message than a mere recognition of democratic activism – it states that the European Union is trying to build its desired relationship and reach its ‘Joint Communication’ objectives without compromising its fundamental values and interests (Massrali & Kaznowski 2021).

A trend of prioritizing European objectives over Russian ambitions has been noticed by Jonathan Katz, Director of Democracy Initiatives at the German Marshall Fund, who defended the Parliament’s choosing of Navalny for this year’s annual Prize by emphasizing that this is not reflective of “anti-Russian” sentiments by the European Union. “This isn’t about calculating whether you can have a positive relationship with the Kremlin. This is about human rights and democracy” (Parrock 2021).

Contrasting views have been expressed regarding whether the EU has taken a strong enough stance against Russia regarding the opposition leader’s imprisonment. Daria Navalnaya directly criticized policy-makers at the European level for being too lenient: “I can’t understand why those who advocate for pragmatic relations with dictators can’t simply open the history books. Pacification of dictators and tyrants never works” (Preiss 2021).

Alexei Navalny’s response to being awarded the Commission’s Prize was delivered through his daughter’s correspondence with him. He encouraged European protection of the EU’s internal values when faced with the Russian regime: “We (Russia) strive to become a part of (Europe). But we also want Europe to strive for itself, to those amazing ideas, which are at its core. We strive for a Europe of ideas, the celebration of human rights, democracy, and integrity” (Preiss 2021).

This celebration of democratic activism and human rights protection has caught the attention of political figures with contrasting views on the Union’s success in integrating Russia and pushing the nation toward democracy. This has raised discussion around whether the EU’s strategy toward Russia should continue as it is, in line with the ‘Joint Communication’ debate, or should be further reformed. The Russian government itself has, unsurprisingly, taken particular note of this year’s award and its effect on the currently fragile EU-Russia relations.

Vladimir Putin’s Response to the 2021 Sakharov Prize

The Russian President reacted with immediate disapproval to Alexei Navalny being awarded the Sakharov honor. The Prize's history dates back to 1988 as a recognition of exceptional contributions to human rights and democracy. It was named after Andrei Sakharov, a Russian advocate for civil liberties and Russian regime reforms, and still constitutes an incredible honor to its recipients (EU Monitor 2021). Following this year’s prize, however, Russian authorities have threatened to close down the civil rights movement “Memorial” created by Andrei Sakharov himself. Justification for this reaction is grounded in the “Foreign Agents” law invoked by Russia – almost 10 years after passing the bill (Preiss 2021). The law states that non-profit organizations that are not sponsored by the Russian government but engage in political activities are automatically classified as “foreign agents”, referring to espionage during the Cold War (Elder 2013).

Putin’s response to Alexei Navalny receiving the Sakharov Prize is unambiguously critical of the Union’s decision but can prove significant to the development of EU-Russia relations. It is likely that the Russian government will perceive the Union awarding Navalny as a direct offense against the country, further slowing prospective compromise between the two parties. The Sakharov Prize could be considered a demonstration of the EU’s conviction that European values have to be imposed on Russia. Recognizing Putin’s biggest opponent as a European hero is likely to send an alarming message to his country - namely, that alleged compromise and discussion will result in the prevalence of the Union’s agenda over Russian sovereignty. Key objectives characterizing the EU-Russian discourse, such as the full implementation of the Minsk agreements and improved Eastern European relations (Massrali & Kaznowski 2021), are likely to become a subject to contestation after the clash of interests over the Sakharov Prize.

Looking Towards the Future

Whether or not “Memorial” will be closed down and the implications of Alexei Navalny receiving the Sakharov Prize for EU-Russia relations remains to be seen. In a sensitive political playing field, every move is carefully considered and observed. How severely the Russian government will choose to respond to these circumstances and whether or not cooperation between Russia and the European Union will be jeopardized due to the Sakharov Prize remains unknown. Deriving from Russia’s historical responses to situations of conflict, it is expected this clash of EU-Russia interests to put an additional strain on their ‘working relationship’.

Written by Bozhidara Tsvetilova, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons

Source: EU Parliament Photo – Twitter


Elder, Miriam. 2013. Russia Plans to Register ‘Foreign Agent’ NGOs’. The Guardian, July 2,

European Parliament. 2021. Sakharov Prize 2021: Parliament Honours Alexei Navalny. EU

Monitor, December 15, 2021.

Massrali, Nabila, and Adam Kaznowski. 2021. EU-Russia Relations: Commission and High

Representative propose the way forward. European Commission, June 16, 2021.

Parrock, Jack. 2021. Sakharov Prize: European Parliament Honors Alexei Navalny. Deutsche

Welle, December 15, 2021.

Preiss, Inbar. 2021. Alexei Navalny Awarded European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for

Freedom of Thought. The Parliament Magazine, December 15, 2021.

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