Putin Critics Join U.S. Theorist as Top Nobel Peace Contenders

Putin Critics Join U.S. Theorist as Top Nobel Peace Contenders
Echo of Moscow radio chief editor Alexei Venediktov is considered one of the top contenders, among several other Russian activists, for this year's Nobel Peace Prize. Photographer: Andrey Smirnov/AFP via Getty Images

The top contenders for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize are Russian activists and critics opposed to the regime of President Vladimir Putin, and a U.S. advocate of non-violent struggle.

Echo of Moscow radio and its chief editor, Alexei Venediktov, as well as Memorial and one of its founding members, Svetlana Gannushkina, are among the top three picks at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, or Prio. U.S. professor Gene Sharp, an 84-year-old theorist of non-violent struggle, is the favorite at both the institute and bookmakers Paddy Power Plc and Betsson AB, ahead of the Oct. 12 announcement in Oslo. Sima Samar, an Afghan human rights activist, is No. 2 at both bookmakers.

Forecasts say the Norwegian committee will probably highlight Russian activists amid a crackdown on opposition and non-government groups in Russia after Putin secured a third presidential term. Protests drew tens of thousands into the streets in December to denounce alleged fraud in parliamentary elections. Hundreds of people were arrested after clashes on the eve of Putin’s May 7 inauguration, including 17 who face trial.

“The Nobel Committee would want to send a clear signal to the Russian opposition that the world sees and supports them,” Christian Berg Harpviken, who leads Prio and ranks possible winners each year, said in an interview on Oct. 5. “It would also send a clear signal to Putin, who doesn’t want to be an international outcast, that the way he runs his regime is unacceptable.”

The Prize

Nobels are also given for achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, peace and literature. The prize was established in the will of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, who died in 1896. The other prizes are handed out in Stockholm, including one for economics that was set up by Sweden’s central bank. Recent winners of the 8 million-krona ($1.2 million) peace prize include Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010, who has been serving an 11-year prison sentence in his country since 2009, the year U.S. President Barack Obama won.

Last year, the prize was awarded to Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and Yemen’s Tawakkul Karman, a human rights activist and journalist.

Russia in July passed legislation requiring groups that receive aid from abroad to register as “foreign agents” and submit to tighter restrictions. Authorities this month also ordered the shutdown of the U.S. aid agency USAID’s activities in the country, a financier of Memorial among others.

A Target

Memorial, founded in 1989, has been mentioned for several years as a Peace Prize contender. The group assists forced migrants and campaigns for human rights and has documented repression dating as far back as Stalin’s Soviet regime.

Gannushkina said at a press conference on Oct. 4 that the Russian government should embrace Memorial’s and similar groups’ efforts. “The main opposition now is civil society,” she said. “We’re becoming a target.”

Echo of Moscow was founded in 1990 and regularly interviews opposition politicians with limited access to state-run television. Putin earlier this year accused the station of “slinging mud” at him “from morning to night” and of serving U.S. interests.

“It’s an honor” to be mentioned as a favorite, Venediktov said in an Oct. 4 interview. “It’s quite amusing when a radio station that’s always in a war with somebody is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.”

A prize could also include other media such as Novaya Gazeta, where journalist Anna Politkovskaya worked before she was assassinated in 2006, Harpviken said.

Kicking Putin

Researchers said such a prize may sour Russian-Norwegian ties, just as the award to Liu froze the Nordic country’s relations with China. While the committee is independent of the government, it’s made up of former Norwegian politicians and led by former Norwegian prime minister and current secretary general of the Council of Europe, Thorbjoern Jagland.

Regime critics in Belarus, where President Aleksandr Lukashenko won all seats in parliamentary elections last month, are also strong candidates, said Nobel historian Oeivind Stenersen. His picks include Memorial and Gannushkina, as well as human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva, who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group, and Belarus dissident Ales Bialiatski.

“Jagland wouldn’t mind giving a kick both to Putin and the Belarusian president,” he said in a phone interview. “He’s a loose cannon who can shoot in any direction.”

Asle Sveen, a professor at University of Oslo who has researched at the Nobel Institute, said his favorites also include Alexeyeva and Bialiatski.

Non-Violence Toolkit

Sharp, Prio’s favorite, had the lowest odds at Paddy Power of 6-4. Betsson also favored Sharp, at 2-1. Unibet Group Plc, a Swedish bookmaker, had Sharp in third with 10-1 odds, tied with Memorial and Gannushkina.

Sharp could be honored for his contribution to uprisings from Tiananmen Square in 1989 to the Arab spring in 2011.

Sharp, who founded the Albert Einstein Institution in Boston in 1983 to promote non-violence, is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and held a research position at Harvard University for 30 years. He’s the author of books including “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” (1973) and “From Dictatorship to Democracy” (1993).

“He is the leading non-violence theorist in the world,” Harpviken said. “He isn’t a pacifist by principle, he just believes non-violence, pragmatically speaking, is a more efficient tool.”

The EU

Other candidates include Myanmar President Thein Sein, a former member of the country’s military junta, for starting a peace process some 20 years after opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded her Nobel. Nigerian religious leaders John Onaiyekan and Mohamed Sa’ad Abubakar may also be awarded for promoting interreligious dialogue, Harpviken said. The European Union and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl could be contenders as well, he said.

Harpviken also mentioned Afghanistan’s Sima Samar, one of his top picks in 2010 and 2011. She was second at Paddy Power with odds of 5-2 and at Betsson at 3-1. Unibet had Egypt’s Maggie Gobran as its lead contender at 6.5-1 for her efforts to help the poor of Cairo.

This year’s announcements started with the medicine prize Oct. 8 and end with the economics prize Oct. 15.

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