Russian political expert on new US sanctions
Despite Navalny’s imprisonment, it will be difficult for the Kremlin to withdraw the opposition leader from the political game, experts in Washington, London and Moscow say.
Simonovsky Court of Moscow sentenced on Tuesday, February 2, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to 3.5 years in prison. With this decision, the court granted the petition of the Federal Penitentiary Service, which demanded to replace the suspended sentence with Navalny in the case «Yves Rocher» from conditional to real. According to the Federal Penitentiary Service, the Russian oppositionist violated the rules of the probationary period more than 50 times, including by not coming for regular registration with the department since August last year..
The court ruled to deduct from the term Navalny spent 10 months under house arrest, thus the real term of the Russian oppositionist should be 2 years and 8 months. After the verdict, Navalny’s lawyers announced their decision to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and a complaint to the Council of Europe.
Before the sentencing, Alexey Navalny made a speech in which he emphasized that the case itself «Yves Rocher» was fabricated, which was confirmed by the ECHR.
«The essence of the matter is to jail me in a case in which I have already been found not guilty., – quotes his words from Radio Liberty. – The European Court issued a judgment in which it wrote in black and white that there is not even corpus delicti [in this case]».
«Someone really wanted me to take a single step across the territory of our country, returning as a free person. Therefore, from the moment I crossed the border, I was a prisoner, – also said Navalny. – The reason for it all – hatred and fear of one person living in the bunker, because I inflicted a mortal offense on him by the fact that I just survived after they tried to kill me on his orders».
The Russian politician also added that «we have 20 million people below the poverty line, we have tens of millions living without the slightest prospects», and they are silent, as they are trying to intimidate «with exactly such demonstration processes».
After a Russian court sentenced Navalny, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called on the Russian authorities «immediately and unconditionally release Navalny and hundreds of other Russian citizens illegally detained in recent weeks for exercising their rights, including the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly». The Secretary of State also announced the possibility of introducing new sanctions against Moscow in connection with the situation around the opposition politician..
US President Joe Biden last week, in a telephone conversation with the Russian president, also called for the release of Alexei Navalny. EU leaders have repeatedly expressed support for Navalny. After the verdict was passed, the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen also condemned the verdict to Navalny.
«I call on Russia to fulfill its international obligations and release him immediately and unconditionally», – wrote the head of the European Commission on Twitter.
Opinions of American experts
American experts believe that the Kremlin is getting rid of Navalny ahead of the Duma elections in September, but he will not be able to completely withdraw the Russian politician from the political game. They do not rule out changes in decisions on the verdict after the elections, and are also confident that Western countries will respond to Moscow’s actions with new sanctions, including sanctions against the near-Kremlin elites. Alexei Navalny’s team, including his associate Vladimir Ashurkov, has repeatedly called for the latter, having sent to the US President a list of 35 Russian citizens against whom the Anti-Corruption Fund (FBK) of Alexei Navalny proposes to impose sanctions in connection with violations of human rights in Russia and persecution of Navalny by the Russian authorities.
«Navalny’s 3.5-year sentence means the Kremlin is redoubling its actions in an attempt to remove him from the political arena. But we have already seen that this will not happen, Navalny will not be excluded from the political game., – speaks in an interview with the Russian Service «Voices of America» former US ambassador to Ukraine and head of the Eurasian Center at the Washington Atlantic Council John Herbst (John Herbst, Atlantic Council). He notes that today Alexei Navalny is a popular figure in Russia and he has a large number of supporters.. – He is a fairly well-known figure because he discovered a problem that worries most Russians. – corruption at the top and hypocrisy».
«Putin likes to present himself as some kind of ascetic, interested in the well-being of Russia. But people see that he has a huge palace on the Black Sea coast., – adds former ambassador. – The regime’s hypocrisy also manifests itself in the fact that it promotes anti-Western sentiment, while all these dignitaries have assets in the West. They have posh houses in the West, and their children go to Western colleges.».
In response to today’s verdict, John Herbst is also awaiting further investigations by the FBK team: «When he was detained, he published an investigation into Putin’s palace, so I have no doubt that he and his organization have planned measures in the event of a prison sentence.». The former ambassador does not exclude the strengthening of the protest movement. The Kremlin, he said, can choose between increased repression and some kind of reconciliation towards the protesters, but with Navalny’s condemnation, it will be difficult: «Therefore, the Kremlin is at an impasse». From the West, the expert expects a sharp condemnation of the actions of the Russian authorities and the introduction of new sanctions:
«The obvious sanctions are personal sanctions against individuals close to the Kremlin, including the children of some powerful figures in Russia who today have high-ranking and lucrative jobs. But we can also see sanctions on Russia’s sovereign debt or on financial institutions closely associated with the Kremlin.».
«It is highly likely that we will see personal sanctions from the West against various close associates of Putin and people directly involved in the poisoning. The question, however, is that these are all very familiar tactics that we have seen over the years and the question is whether the West can go beyond that.», – says in the comment «Voice of America» Professor at University College London and expert on Russian intelligence services Mark Galeotti (Mark Galeotti, University College London). It is up to the Russians to change the political situation in the country, he stresses, but the West could support the proponents of democratic change by creating «safe space», in which they could voice their opinions; and provide political asylum to those facing repression. Also, Western countries, according to Galeotti, need to refute Russian propaganda that Western special services or diplomats are behind Alexei Navalny and the protests..
«We see that the Kremlin is very quickly switching to official channels for the dissemination of its propaganda. For example, allegations that the American embassy organized protests, or that Navalny – purchased asset of Western intelligence services. And this came not only from the propagandists on television, but also from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and similar structures. If they decide to raise this to the official level, then the West also needs to rebuff this propaganda at the official level.».
Regarding the verdict to Alexei Navalny, the expert does not exclude that the Kremlin may change its decision after the September elections to the State Duma, but the question is in which direction: «The Kremlin really wants to get him out of the way, especially before the September Duma elections. Then they have the opportunity, if necessary, to resort to the option of early release. – amnesty or good behavior. In the same way, however, how they can begin to threaten him with the establishment of additional cases». In the short term, Navalny’s team will strive to mobilize society for large protests, however, given the increasing pressure and violence from the Russian authorities, it is possible that «anti protest fatigue», the expert considers. At the same time, he notes, the current protests in Russia have broader roots than just the support of the Russian opposition. However, Navalny, with a focus on fighting corruption, could mobilize broader masses of the population unhappy with the state of affairs in the country, Galeotti adds..
«I don’t think these protests are exclusively about Alexei Navalny or that he poses a direct threat to Vladimir Putin., – says the director of programs of the human rights organization Freedom House for Europe and Eurasia Mark Berendt (Marc Behrendt). – It has more to do with the very fact that this regime, the government in power, is not fulfilling its tasks, especially in the field of security and stability.».
The expert adds that the social contract that brought Vladimir Putin to power and kept him for years – providing Russians with stability and economic development – does not work anymore today. «How can you be safe when your kids go out and just say what can be said in any society and then go to jail? – adds Berendt. – This is not a sign of a society that cares about their safety or cares about their people.»
Opinions of Russian experts
Opposition politician Leonid Gozman in an interview with the Russian service «Voices of America» named the trial of Navalny and the sentence passed on him «demonstrative arbitrariness». According to the politician, in the understanding of the Russian leadership, the sovereignty – it is the right to do whatever, regardless of domestic laws, international obligations, or common sense.
As it seems to Gozman, the consequences of what happened will be very large-scale: «This is an increase in repression within the country. Moreover, this will happen not only because such an order will come from the Kremlin, but because law enforcement officers from the provinces will see the unpunished arbitrariness and cruelty that their colleagues did with «foggy visors» in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other large cities. Accordingly, they will perceive this as a signal that this is the way to act always and everywhere.».
In addition, pressure will increase not only on the opposition, but also on any dissent, the politician emphasized: «In all likelihood, we will face charges of treason, espionage, and so on. This can be seen from the way propaganda described the activities of Navalny and his team in recent days.».
Fresh accusations against the West from the Foreign Ministry and the Kremlin about «inspiring» Navalny’s case, stated Leonid Gozman.
«The Kremlin clearly wants to point out «the present» the enemy, adhering to hackneyed patterns. In fact, they have nothing else in stock to somehow get out of the situation into which they have driven themselves. Therefore, it is necessary to present the matter in such a way that Navalny works for Western money. This is purely for an internal audience. More precisely, on those few who still believe in propaganda», – he summed up.
Political scientist Andrey Nikulin believes that the Russian government wants to appear not funny, but scary. In his opinion, this is due to all of her actions both in relation to the protesters and in relation to Alexei Navalny himself..
«The government hopes to destroy the protest by courts, time limits and batons, but in fact drives it deep into the depths, like a peat fire, – added by the interlocutor «Voices of America». – And he, if not now, then in the future, will suddenly burst out from any, even an insignificant pretext. Power seems to itself smart, technical, cynical and tough. In reality, she acts stupidly and predictably, in fact, playing the game that Navalny imposed on her with his return.».
By their actions, the Russian government makes Navalny a single leader of the opposition, rallying around him the absolute majority of the disaffected population and silencing the critics and opponents of the FBK head, the political scientist said..
«Because now it’s just morally unacceptable to criticize him., – he explained. – In fact, the Kremlin raises Alexei Navalny to the level of Putin, and there are only two politicians left in the country, which is bad for both the government and society, since we need maximum pluralism and competition of opinions. But the authorities stubbornly make a new Yeltsin out of Navalny».
To some it may seem good, to some – bad, but this is a fact, Andrey Nikulin concluded.
Voice of America journalist. Prior to that, she worked for international non-governmental organizations in Washington and London, in the Russian-language version of the Estonian daily newspaper “Postimees” and as a spokesman for the Estonian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Interests – international relations, politics, economics