Here's what you need to know about democracy this week:
1. Protests Across Russia Demand Navalny’s Release and Shake the Kremlin
2. Biden Restores Journalistic Leadership at the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM)
3. Poet Laureate Lights Up Inauguration
Scroll down to read
Protesters clash with riot police in Moscow. Credit: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images
Protests Across Russia Demand Navalny’s Release and Shake the Kremlin
More than 100,000 people poured into the streets of Russia on Saturday to protest the arrest of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s foremost opposition leader, who had apparently violated his parole when he was almost assassinated and had to be airlifted to Berlin. Shouts of “Free Navalny!” and “Putin is a thief!” rang out from Siberia to the squares of Moscow and St. Petersburg, marking the nation’s largest protests in years. In Yakutsk, a city in Eastern Siberia, bone-chilling temperatures of -61 degrees Fahrenheit did not deter citizens from making their voices heard. Braving heavily armed police and threats of state retribution, demonstrators everywhere decried government repression and the corruption of Putin’s regime.
The Kremlin’s response to the protests was swift and harsh. Large groups of officers, dressed head to toe in riot gear, surrounded and brutally beat demonstrators. Men, women, and children were picked off the streets at random and dragged away to police cars. In total, state police detained an estimated 3,900 people; law enforcement cracked down most forcefully on protests in Moscow, the nation’s capital, and in cities near the Chinese border, where previous demonstrations had occurred.
1. What do these protests show? Is Putin’s regime in danger?
Putin’s regime has survived several waves of organized protest before, including nation-wide demonstrations held in 2017, 2014, and 2011. Yet there are several reasons to believe that Saturday’s protests may be more successful:
Navalny has transformed himself into a powerful political martyr. Unlike many other members of the Russian opposition movement, he has refused to go into exile. After surviving a botched assasination attempt, he voluntarily returned to his country to face imprisonment. The emotional draw of his courage and his willingness to put country before self will continue to inspire new supporters.
Huge numbers of young people took part in the protests, which has made the Kremlin increasingly anxious about its long-term political future. In the days before the protests, the government demanded that social media platforms take down any video encouraging minors to join. Schools scheduled exams and athletic events during demonstrations. Many universities threatened to expel students who took part. These efforts appear to have failed. Analysts estimate that more than 40% of attendees were first-time protesters.
Navalny recently released several viral investigative documentaries that have galvanized his supporters and persuaded others to join his cause. Just four days before the protests, Navalny’s team released a Youtube video allegedly proving that Putin secretly spent 1.4 billion dollars on a personal palace on the Black Sea. This came on the heels of another viral video where Navalny was able to extract a confession from one of his would-be assassins, directly tying the attempt on his life to Putin’s regime. The two videos together have more than 120 million views. The president’s decadent lifestyle has quickly become a symbol of the Kremlin’s corruption and a major flashpoint in the country’s growing opposition movement. Many cited the video as their reason for taking part in demonstrations.
2. What can the United States and the West do?
Though the White House has condemned Russia’s actions and called for Navalny’s “immediate and unconditional release,” words are not enough. The West must meet the actions of Putin’s regime with swift financial and political retribution, including direct sanctions on everyone involved with Navalny’s persecution. Shortly after Navalny’s return to Russia, some of Russia’s most prominent human rights critics (including RDI’s Chairman, Garry Kasparov), gave a press conference outlining recommendations for next steps for the West.
The United States, Canada, the U.K., and the E.U. must immediately trigger the Magnitsky Act, a law enabling governments to impose sanctions on individuals and organizations accused of human rights abuses. By invoking the Act, countries can freeze Russian officials’ assets and impose travel bans on them and their families. This leads to direct consequences on those responsible for Navalny’s attempted assasination and arbitrary arrest, without hurting the Russian people or catalyzing armed conflict. In Garry Kasparov’s succinct words, punishments should target “Banks, not tanks.”
Countries that have adopted the Act must update their Specially Designated Nationals List to include the eight individuals highlighted by Navalny’s team. The Biden administration should pressure Allies—especially the E.U.—to do the same.
Meanwhile, it appears this weekend’s protests were just the beginning. On Monday, Navalny’s team called for another wave of protests on January 31st in “all Russian cities...For Navalny’s freedom. For our freedom. For justice.”
The US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) headquarters in Washington, DC. Credit: Voice of America
Biden Restores Journalistic Leadership at the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM)
On Wednesday, after President Biden’s inauguration, the incoming administration forced out Michael Pack, the Steve Bannon ally appointed by former President Trump to lead USAGM. Replacing Pack, Biden named Kelu Chao as acting CEO of USAGM. Chao is a career journalist who has spent 40 years in public service at Voice of America (VOA), a USAGM program. She had previously joined a whistleblower lawsuit against corruption at USAGM under Pack’s leadership.
USAGM, which oversees VOA and its sister agencies, broadcasts in 62 different languages to 350 million viewers around the world every week. Many of its programs were founded during the Cold War to provide a free press as a public service to those nations which, due to totalitarian state control or lack of resources, had none.
Pack’s departure comes as the Biden administration attempts to return journalistic integrity and impartiality to the agency. Part of this effort includes ferreting out all the political appointees Trump had “burrowed” into civil service roles in government agencies before leaving. Every administration does this to a certain extent, but the Trump administration burrowed a larger number of allies than its predecessors, and did so in unprecedented ways, which the next section will discuss.
1. What did Pack do at USAGM?
When Pack took office as CEO in June 2020, he immediately began firing career journalists as the heads of the organization’s news services. He described his mandate as to “drain the swamp” at USAGM and refused to renew visas for some foreign journalists, saying that journalism is “a great cover for being a spy.”
Pack also fired the bipartisan boards of several news agencies under the USAGM umbrella and appointed partisan activists to replace them. These partisan hires included a former GOP state chairman turned lobbyist for the governments of Taiwan, Qatar, Morocco, and Ukraine, a columnist for the Falun Gong-founded The Epoch Times, and State Department officials with no journalistic backgrounds.
After the 2020 election, Pack tried to burrow his political hires into USAGM by offering civil service contracts that would protect them from being fired for at least two years into the Biden administration, and even then, only with cause. More than two dozen regional editors and national service directors within Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) protested, saying that this “is precisely the kind of political power maneuver that RFE/RL regularly witnesses in places like Russia, Hungary, Belarus, and Tajikistan. We never thought we’d see it from our own oversight agency.”
Perhaps most egregiously, in early January, Pack forced USAGM to broadcast a speech by Mike Pompeo at VOA headquarters. Only the Pack-appointed director of VOA was allowed to ask questions. When one VOA reporter, Patsy Widakuswara, asked a question, the VOA director responded, “You obviously don’t know how to behave.” Widakuswara was demoted twice in 24 hours and reassigned. In addition, Pack demoted Yolanda Lopez, who was Widakuswara’s editor. In an open letter, 30 VOA journalists called Pompeo’s speech “a propaganda event.”
2. What has the Biden administration done so far?
In a Friday memo, sent two days after taking her new office, acting CEO Chao reasserted the importance of the fundamental “firewall” between journalism and state supervision as well as maintaining “the highest standards of professionalism and the sacred editorial independence and journalistic integrity…”
Chao promoted Lopez to be acting director of VOA. Lopez then restored Widakuswara to her original position. Additionally, Chao fired a number of Pack’s partisan appointees. Those hires have pushed back, pointing to the contracts Pack gave them. Legal challenges may ensue.
The congressional charter founding VOA during World War II charged the organization with providing independent news as a public service to the world. Once again under the leadership of career journalists, not partisan activists, USAGM is closer to achieving that mission today.
National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman speaks at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden. Credit: ROB CARR/GETTY
Poet Laureate Lights Up Inauguration
On January 20th, Amanda Gorman became the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history when she delivered her original poem: “The Hill We Climb.” Gorman, raised by a single mother in Los Angeles, is a recent graduate of Harvard University who overcame a severe speech impediment as a child to become the first U.S. National Youth Poet Laureate. Rather than simply focusing on the serious challenges facing America (the “never-ending shade,” in her words), Gorman shed light on the power we now have to seize the “dawn” before us and to rejuvenate our democracy.
1. What made her poem different?
“The Hill We Climb” did not take on the traditional form of written poetry; instead, Gorman utilized the spoken-word style, gesturing expressively with every verse she shared. And by emphasizing the rhythms, rhymes, and intonations of each phrase, Gorman transformed her poem into a form of music. Importantly, the language Gorman used was not overly elaborate or complex—instead, she spoke simply, but with power and purpose, ensuring that her words remained accessible to every member of her audience.
Furthermore, although Gorman’s poem did not hide from America’s challenges, she couched her constructive criticism in a message of hope and the potential for positive change. Democracy, Gorman argued, is a process—one that has the flexibility to self-correct and adapt. As she says, while it can be “periodically delayed / it can never be permanently defeated.” Our nation is not “broken / but simply unfinished.” Indeed, America’s great experiment continues.
2. What is the history of poet laureates at inaugurations?
Poetry has only recently become a traditional part of the presidential inauguration ceremony. Only four presidents—John F. Kennedy in 1961, Bill Clinton in 1993 and 1997, Barack Obama in 2009 and 2013, and Joe Biden in 2021—have invited poets to compose work for their respective ceremonies. Amanda Gorman takes her place in history alongside the likes of Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, Elizabeth Alexander, and Richard Blanco, speaking words that will echo through the minds of Americans for years to come.