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Why does the Russian opposition reject the Twitter Trump ban?


The storming of the US Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump has shaken the world. In Russia though, the events of January 6 were all but overshadowed by the banishment of the US president from Twitter. The focus shifted to Trump’s deplatforming in no small part because Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny weighed in on the issue by describing the ban as an “unacceptable act of censorship”.

Twitter made its decision to suspend Trump’s account because of two of his tweets, which it said “must be read in the context of broader events in the country and the way in which the President’s statements can be mobilised by different audiences, including to incite violence”. The tweets, however, did not contain direct calls for violence or insurrection.

The issue appeared to be so divisive that even Navalny’s usually monolithic movement was split, with some of its senior figures endorsing the ban. This debate reflects a critical reassessment of America as a role model for pro-democracy Russians, who have traditionally looked up to Washington.

The opposition to the ban derives from two substantially different strains of thought, one of which has much to do with emulating America. An extremely vocal group of young libertarians, led by the outspoken Mikhail Svetov, has always been inspired by the agenda of America’s Tea Party – gun rights, small and non-intrusive government as well as cultural conservatism. This is how they naturally arrived at supporting Trump, while still opposing President Vladimir Putin.

People representing the other strain of thought, like Navalny or his chief strategist Leonid Volkov, are no fans of Trump. Their disagreement with the ban pertains to values. In a Twitter thread, which he published in Russian and English, Navalny deplored the fact that the decision was adopted by a private company in a non-transparent manner, or as he put it – “by people we don’t know and in accordance to a procedure we don’t know”. He suggested that an independent supervisory body would be much better positioned to take such drastic steps as deplatforming the US president.

He also dubbed it “an act of selective justice”, laughing off the notion that the decision was based on Twitter’s terms of service. He pointed to the incessant death threats he has been receiving from Twitter users, who are in clear violation of those rules and who in no way have been sanctioned by Twitter. And these threats are not to be taken lightly. Navalny has survived multiple attacks, including most recently a poisoning with a lethal nerve agent by the Russian secret services, as revealed by British investigative outlet Bellingcat.

He also dismissed the arguments in favour of the ban by saying that 80 percent of them are identical to those the Kremlin uses in its attempts to drive him out of online platforms, such as YouTube.

Navalny’s criticism reflects a sense of fatigue among Russia’s liberals with America’s failure to draw important lessons from the disaster of electing someone like Trump in a democratic vote. Instead of taking the moral high ground, Trump’s opponents have adopted many signature characteristics of the pro-Trump crowd. These include an online mobbing culture, a penchant for conspiracy theories and xenophobia, especially anti-Russian sentiments. Some anti-Trump activists have even proudly brandished their Russophobia, with former Moscow CIA station chief John Sipher tweeting in 2018: “How can one not be a Russophobe?”

As many Russian liberals see it, the anti-Trumpists’ unhealthy obsession with Putin’s meddling in (or rather – trolling of) American politics mirrors Putin’s own paranoia about foreign agents and America’s perceived desire to undo Russia. If anything, the inability of numerous American commentators to distinguish between the Kremlin and the Russian people, to recognise that Russia is itself divided by the same political barricade as America (between educated urban cosmopolitans and lower-income provincials who feel alienated by narcissistic liberals) has played into Putin’s hands by helping to discredit the West in the eyes of common Russians.

It also feels ironic that members of the political establishment and commentariat who are now panicking about the threat of the militant far right in the US have long turned a blind eye on America’s appeasement of similar dangerous forces in Eastern Europe. Perhaps they saw it as a brilliant strategy to counter Putin’s ambitions, but the growing power of the far right in the region has only helped him further his goals.

Where was the outrage when during the Maidan revolution in Ukraine, President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland, posed in a photo op with political leaders of the revolution, including Oleh Tiahnybok, a rabid xenophobe and anti-Semite?

After the Maidan succeeded in toppling Viktor Yushchenko, US officials held multiple meetings with the new speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, Andriy Parubiy, the founder of what was then called Social-National Party (the similarity in the name to Hitler’s NSDAP was probably intended).

The US also continued to support the Ukrainian police even when its acting head became Vadym Troyan, an alumnus of the white supremacist group Patriot of Ukraine and former deputy commander of the notorious Azov regiment.

It is this lax attitude to the promoters of far-right agenda, which helped Putin frame Ukraine’s revolution as a US-backed far-right coup and justify the occupation of Crimea in the eyes of his Russian audience. Ironically, for American whitewashers of East European ultranationalism, the Ukrainian far right was ecstatic about the storming of the Capitol, their Telegram channels filled with cheers and hope for a “white revolution”.

Now that America has to deal with its own far-right problem, perhaps it can learn some lessons from Eastern Europe. One of them should be that deplatforming radicals does not work. As the Russian opposition knows all too well, attempts to suppress information when there is demand for it are bound to fail.

In the past three years, after a series of increasingly pathetic policies, the Kremlin failed to ban the messaging app Telegram, now the main platform for open political debate in Russia. Created by avowed libertarians, it is also a safe haven for Nazis and white terror propagandists, who are now calling on Trump to move in with them.

Deplatforming the far right is not an effective long-term solution. Making bigotry culturally unacceptable on either side of the aisle is what can put an end to the far-right menace. But that can only be achieved through the process of rigorous national introspection, which the American society may not be quite prepared to do.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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