This article was first published in Italian by EuractivItalia.
One thing we have come to expect of Russia is the unexpected. No one predicted the gains made by the Russian opposition in regional elections in Eastern Kharabosk last September. Nor that this would lead to a botched assassination attempt on Alexei Navalny.
By returning to Russia after life-saving treatment in Germany, Navalny has deliberately put himself back into the hands of the regime that tried to kill him. Instead of the perpetrators being brought to justice, it is the victim Navalny himself, who now finds himself behind bars.
The international community should recognise Navalny’s act for what it is – an extraordinary act of moral courage in the face of a corrupt and failing regime. So far, however, the response from the European Union at least, has been surprisingly muted.
In responding to a debate about Navalny’s arrest in the European Parliament on 19 January, Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said this:
“We are putting all the political pressure we can in order to get the freedom of Mr Navalny and I will continue to do so by the ways and means that I consider appropriate.”
The problem for Mr Navalny, and all those who are fighting in Russia for the values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law, is that this threat does not amount to very much.
It is true that before Christmas, the EU put Magnitsky sanctions on six members of the regime, including the Head of the Security Services, in retaliation for the Navalny poisoning.
That was no more than a symbolic gesture which will have had next to no impact on the Kremlin’s calculations. Commenting on the latest developments, Dimitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, told the waiting media that the regime had heard the international outcry but had no intention of listening to what the world’s media and leaders had to say.
“It is a completely internal affair, and we will not allow anyone to interfere,” Mr Peskov said.
Powerful economic levers such as plans for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline which might make the Kremlin sit up and take note have not been touched, nor are they likely to be.
President Biden has form when it comes to pipelines, vowing to cancel the Keystone pipeline on his first day of office. Will he take the same robust lead towards Russia?
In Britain, the Labour MP Catherine West has called for “a co-ordinated response from the incoming Biden administration, the EU and the UK Government”.
Former Russian MP Ilya Ponomarev, the only MP to vote against the annexation of Crimea and now living in Washington, thinks swift action by the Biden administration is unlikely.
“Biden is a good friend and we know he doesn’t like Putin,” he told a conference organised by civil rights group New Europeans following the US elections. “But we also have the experience that under Democratic administrations the actions are not so swift and decisive as the rhetoric. It will be up to us in the Russian opposition to find the solutions ourselves.”
Former US Ambassador to the Ukraine, John Herbst, now a director at the Atlantic Council, Washington, told the conference:
“Biden will reaffirm the importance of American leadership in Europe. This matters, because the effectiveness of Western policy towards Russia depends on unity of the alliance.”
“But in common with the Trump administration, Biden will not want to make promises beyond what the United States can deliver. He knows the limits of American power.”
Without American leadership, in actions as well as words, it is hard to see how Europe can have any leverage on what happens next in Russia at all.
A debate in the European Parliament gave MEPs the opportunity to condemn the arrest of Alexei Navalny and to call for his immediate release as well as that of the many journalists who had also been taken into custody. But there was no agreed plan about what can be done.
David McAllister MEP (EPP) said the EU should enlarge the group of individuals subject to the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions (Magnitsky measures), introduced on 10 December 2020 (Human Rights Day): “These developments further deteriorate the already strained relationship between the EU and Russia. We shouldn’t hesitate to use the sanctions regime where and when necessary,” he said.
Other MEPs, including Isabel Santos MEP (Progressives) and Urmas Paet MEP (Renew) also called for the immediate release of Navalny and further sanctions while Sergey Lagodinsky (Greens) demanded the cancellation of Nord Stream 2.
Navalny’s return to Russia was both an act of extraordinary moral courage as well as one of political calculation. He clearly understands that what we may be witnessing is the political if not the physical disintegration of Putin’s thirty year grip on power. So must we.
Parliamentary elections take place in Russia in September. All the signs are that the Russian opposition may make a decisive breakthrough, unless it is prevented from competing by the actions of a crippled regime. There have been rumours too that Putin’s health is failing.
Meanwhile in a video message from the courtroom Navalny told his supporters to take to the streets on Saturday, “it’s what the regime fears most”.
That has led to the threat of further legal action against Mr Navalny who now sits in solitary confinement in the infamous Matrosskaya Tishina prison in Moscow – where Serge Magnitsky, the anti-corruption lawyer who gave his name to the measures on which the EU’s Global Sanctions Regime is based, was held and where he died.
Navlany’s supporters know that as the regime presses down on their leader, so pressure increases on the regime itself. With each passing day, the Kremlin reveals its weakness as Navalny proves his strength. But it is far from clear which of the two will blink first.
As Bill Bowring, human rights lawyer and international democracy campaigner told the conference: “When it comes to Russia, it’s best to expect the unexpected.”