Intimidation games: developments in the Navalny case

On February 2nd a Moscow court sentenced Alexey Navalny to three and a half years in prison after finding him guilty of probation period violations. A Russian court has now ruled that Navalny will enter the Russian penal colony system. His time behind bars will be reduced to two years and eight months due to previous time spent under house arrest, but the world is still demanding that he be released immediately. In his closing statement at sentencing, Navalny described his arrest as an attempt to “jail one person to intimidate millions” with a proud smirk on his face.

But Navalny’s party and supporters have not remained silent. Protests have continued throughout Russia, and political activism has embraced the new age digital strategies. Dr. Anastasia Vasilyeva, head of the Alliance of Doctors trade union and public Navalny ally, made international news for her unique encounter with the authorities at her home. Russian police entered the doctor’s home to deliver a search warrant, but Vasilyeva confidently played Beethoven’s Fur Elise on the piano without interruption. This video symbolized class, resistance and hope for the Russian people, leaving the Kremlin in search of new intimidation tactics.

In the meantime, however, Navalny has picked up a fine for another charge in Russia: slander against a war veteran. The veteran in question appeared in a video about the constitutional change that would allow Putin to be in office until 2036. Navalny publicly stated that the individuals in the video were “the shame of the country”. This charge was a clear attempt to make Navalny appear unpatriotic and, therefore, untrustworthy. However, Navalny continued to hold his ground by showing no fear in court, challenging the veteran’s grandson, at the risk of being held in contempt.

The European Court of Human Rights

The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, has now released a statement on Navalny’s arrest. Mijatović claims that this event “defies all credibility” of Russia’s international human rights obligations. She adds that the Moscow court ruling undermines the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), as well as the country’s duty to protect its citizens’ fundamental rights. However, with Putin continuing to distance himself from Europe, Mijatović’s words are likely falling on deaf ears.

The Kremlin’s spokesperson has said that the ECtHR rulings and comments on the Navalny case are intervening with Russia’s internal legal affairs. While the Strasbourg Court cannot impose its judgments on Russia directly, the Council of Europe may be forced to take action and remove the Russian Federation as a Member State. Unfortunately, this would only add fuel to the fire that is burning Europe’s relationship with Russia.

Now the question is whether Navalny will live to see the day of his release. Putin has continued to keep quiet on the matter despite the ongoing national protests and international attention that have been sparked by Navalny’s arrest. While Navalny could make a second claim with the ECtHR while in detention, Magnitskiy’s 2009 death sets a disturbing precedent of what can happen to Putin’s opposition. It also highlights just how little the ECtHR can do to protect Russian citizens’ rights before violations occur.

The European Union

Josep Borrel, the EU’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, travelled to Moscow last week to meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. While the aim of his trip was to address the Union’s growing differences with Russia, Borrel found that Russian officials were not interested in discussing much at all. In fact, his conversation with the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs reportedly reached high levels of tension when Mr. Borrel pushed for Navalny’s release. With little space for further dialogue, Borrel expects Member States to place further economic sanctions on Russia.

After this meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov openly threatened to cut ties with the EU, claiming that European sanctions had created risks for sensitive parts of the Russian economy in the past. Even more concerning is that Lavrov indicated that Russia is ready to isolate itself from the global community in its entirety. He followed up this claim with a chilling statement: “If you want peace, prepare for war.” It is clear that Borrel’s visit to Russia burnt many more bridges than it built.

Commentators have heavily criticised Borrel, calling the trip a political failure. 70 MEPs have collectively demanded his resignation. The fact of the matter is that the EU does not currently have substantial leverage over Russia. Not only are political figures concerned with the future of the Union’s interactions with China, but some are also outraged that Borrel stood by and smiled while Lavrov called the EU “unreliable”. This trip also tarnished the credibility of the Union’s capacity to conduct international relations, underlining the need for a reinvigoration of ties with the White House.

The United States

The world is also turning to the US to see how the Biden administration will address Russia. New National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, has confirmed that Russia is definitely on Biden’s agenda. However, with domestic challenges like COVID-19 and a polarised population to deal with first, it may take some time before President Biden confronts President Putin. While Trump’s flippant machismo gained traction with Putin’s stern strongman demeanor, Biden’s traditional diplomatic approach may not have much of an impact on the Kremlin.

What now for Navalny and his followers?

National leaders must continue to urge the Kremlin to prioritize human rights, and Merkel and Macron need to put their foot down. Although Putin and his advocates have threatened to isolate themselves from the global community, international actors must make it clear that politics can never be arbitrated by imperious arrogance.

Russian citizens have made – and must continue to make – their voices heard, and make the most of the international momentum that the opposition figure’s arrest has created. As Mr. Borrel stated, “civil society continues to play a vital role in promoting respect for democracy, fundamental freedoms and human rights”. This international spotlight gives Kremlin critics strength and more credibility... but the spotlight will sadly not stay on this matter forever.