Nobel Peace Prize: Could a Russian win this year?

Several Russian contenders are among the favorites for this year's Nobel Peace Prize, to be awarded Friday. But a Russian winner could make for sour relations between Norway and Russia.

Two years ago, the Nobel Peace Prize soured relations between Norway and China after the Norwegian Nobel Committee named a Chinese dissident the 2010 winner. And Norway could be set for a similar diplomatic tiff – this time with Russia – when the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize is awarded on Friday.

Memorial, the Russian organization focusing on human rights, democracy, and reconciliation through historical documentation, is a top contender according to Kristian Berg Harpviken, director at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, and Norwegian Nobel historian Asle Sveen.

Memorial is also the sixth top pick according to online betting site Paddy Power, whose odds are often a gauge to the prize's frontrunners.

Mr. Harpviken says the prize could be shared with Memorial founding member Svetlana Gannushkina, whereas Mr. Sveen suggests it may also go to Belarus dissident Ales Bialiatski, who is currently in prison, and Russian human rights campaigner Lyudmila Alexejeva.

Stirring a backlash?

A Russian prize could lead to a political backlash similar to the uproar after the Norwegian Nobel Committee in 2010 gave the prize to imprisoned Chinese human rights dissident Liu Xiaobo.

Chinese officials rebuked Norway for challenging its justice system and retaliated with political snubs, most visibly through delays in bilateral free trade talks and canceled high-level meetings. There also were concerns that China’s new fish regulations were imposed to damper Norwegian seafood exports to China, which fell dramatically after the award.

A Russian winner could have similar results. “This will provoke the [Russian] government,” says Sveen. “Suddenly there will be something wrong with the fish.”

Russia is Norway’s second largest seafood market at 5 billion kr ($873 million), mostly trout, salmon, and herring exports. But Harpviken does not believe a Russian reaction would be as severe as the Chinese, both because of the “different political cultures” and the fact that “Russia has more to lose than the Chinese.” However, it could provoke an “even harder clampdown” on civil society.

Their Russian and Belarus picks have been officially nominated as candidates by members of the Norwegian Parliament, another signal that speaks in their favor because of the historical precedence in candidates having a “Norwegian connection,” either in the nomination process or a link to Norway, says Sveen.

It would also be a topical choice. The recent Belarus and Russian elections were both criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for voting irregularities, and three members of Russian punk-rock girl band Pussy Riot were imprisoned following their protest performance this year.

Still, an award critical of Russia’s human rights record could irk the Russians, particularly given Thorbjørn Jagland’s dual role as chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee and secretary general of the Council of Europe, of which Russia is a member. Critics have pointed to Mr. Jagland’s positions as a possible hindrance in the committee giving the award to Russian civil society activists. But Harpviken disagrees.

“I would have looked to Russia regardless of Jagland’s position,” he says. “But the fact that he is [secretary general], makes me think it is more likely. The only way to counter the criticism [over his roles] is to give the prize to a [Council of Europe] member state.”

Other contenders

Another favorite to win the Peace Prize this year is Gene Sharp, a US scholar whose writings on nonviolence have inspired activists from China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 up until Egypt’s Tahir Square protest. Both Harpviken and Paddy Power rank him as their top choice. Sharp’s focus on nonviolence could be particularly relevant this year because of the Libyan uprisings turning into massive armed confrontation and Syrian confrontations converting into civil war.

Sharp spent five years in Norway, but the fact that he is an American works against him, given that there have been three Peace Prize winners from the US in the last decade, according to Sveen. However, the lack of a Latin American laureate in recent years could boost Mexican bishop and nonviolent human rights activist José Raúl Vera López or Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez.

Another possible direction is inter-religious dialogue. In this category, Harpviken points to Archbishop John Onaiyekan and the Sultan of Sokoto Mohamed Sa’ad Abubakar, leaders of the Christian and Muslim communities in Nigeria. Absent from his list is Maggie Gobran, Egyptian Coptic Christian and head of the charity organization Stephen’s Children. She has been nominated by Norwegian parliamentary members, but could be seen as an inflammatory choice because of the recent uprisings in the Middle East over the anti-Islamic video Innocence of Muslims produced by a Coptic Christian in the US.

In total, there are 231 valid nominations this year, 43 of which are organizations. Among this year’s nominees are reportedly several top leaders, such as Giulio Andreotti, Helmut Kohl, and Bill Clinton, organizations such as Nansen Dialogue Network, Military Religious Freedom Foundation, Concerned for Working Children, Save the Children, and UNICEF, and various whistleblowers, including Israeli Mordechai Vanunu and Bradley Manning of the US.

The committee will announce their final choice on Friday morning in Oslo. The Peace Prize was shared last year by three women’s rights activists: President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, and Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman, head of Women Journalists Without Chains.

Ms. Gbowee has quit her post as head of the Peace and Reconciliation Commission in Ms. Sirleaf's government, criticizing her fellow laureate's administration for corruption and nepotism this week.

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