One week after he was seen crying for help on the corridor of a plane from Tomsk to Moscow, Russian political activist Alexei Navalny is lying in a bed at the Charité hospital in Berlin, fighting for his life. Although he may survive, German doctors who have treated him since his arrival on an emergency rescue flight from Omsk have made clear that his health could suffer long-term damages. Confirming early fears, more troublingly, their tests have assessed beyond doubt that Navalny was poisoned, most certainly with a substance from the group of cholinesterase inhibitors.
The Kremlin, which Navalny has been challenging for years with growing success, has officially dismissed the diagnosis, claiming German doctors were “in a hurry” to confirm the poisoning, but leaks to the Russian press that the political activist was being closely followed by the country’s security services, and footage from the airport and the plane, have in fact left few doubts on the matrix of Navalny’s sudden illness, weeks ahead of a key vote in 18 Russian regions (September 13). With the unconscious Navalny, Vladimir Putin has thus sent to Germany, and Europe, a poisoned diplomatic ball. One that cannot be left without a response. But which one?
As they meet in Berlin on Thursday and Friday for an “informal” meeting, it is with this pressing, uncomfortable question EU foreign affairs ministers need to grapple. Just as they were seeking to pressure Moscow to abandon its decades-long support for torture-prone Belarus dictator Aleksander Lukashenko, cooperation and engagement clearly do not look as viable avenues anymore. Hardening the stance towards the Kremlin, on the other hand, may end up only damging Belarusian peaceful protesters, while providing no effective support for the emergence of Russian dissent, let alone Navalny’s own recovery. So what options does the EU have, concretely, to make its voice heard on such perilous, values-threatening crises at its Eastern doors?
“That is an enormously tricky dilemma”, reckons Gustav Gressel, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and a Russia and defense policy expert.
All evidence suggests Alexei Navalny was poisoned by Kremlin-inspired agents. First of all, Mr. Gressel, why him, and why now?
Navalny is one of the most known and prolific still living opposition figures in Russia. With three mental cases cosntructed against him, he was already barred from running for political offices. Yet although he’s therefore not officially included in the polls usually published ahead of regional elections or federal elections, he was widely believed to have become increasingly popular. He also gave birth to this ‘dangerous’ idea that those who are dissatisfied with Putin should vote for the best acceptable order, i.e. the least bad of the opposition candidates, or even of the fake opposition, like the communist party or the liberal democratic one etc., just to send a message of dissent to Putin. And this worked at several local and regional elections, and actually even in the latest constitutional referendum. That is of course deeply annoying for the Kremlin. The dissent is rising, and there is an uncomfortable feeling that he has contributed a lot to that, with his charisma but also with his public investigations on corruption at the highest State levels. That is a line that Putin hates to be crossed. And there, Russia functions just like a mafia clan; if you insult the big boss on something he takes personally, you can expect repercussions.
Then why not eliminating him in a more ‘straightforward’ way?
That is the more interesting question. If the Russian security apparatus was worried that Belarus protests could spark some kind of spillover effect, and would have to clamp down on the perceived agents in Russia, they could have easily shot him, just as Boris Nemtsov five years ago. The brutal way which was chosen could only be explained as an intimidation to the opposition movement; they needed to punish Navalny in order to deter any other opposition politicians, or dissatisfied people, to feel emboldened by the Belarusian scenario, and organize similar anti-regime protests. Although the perpetrators could probably not entirely predetermine how the case would unfold, doing it in this way, one that takes time and is deliberately cruel, would of course imply that the case will be in the public discussion, including international media, for weeks.
So far, the EU and the US have reacted by condemning the apparent attempt on Navalny’s life and demanded that Russia holds “an independent and transparent investigation”. Can that be seriously regarded as a meaningful request?
Of course it is not very realistic to expect a transparent investigation from the same security services that have most likely poisoned him. But the EU needs to take into account there is also a very delicate crisis in Belarus going, and these two fields will necessarily be connected for now. Putin is so far backing Lukashenko, although not in a very open way, but the Europeans are still trying to convince Russia to change its approach and favour an international mediation, perhaps through OSCE, which will be meeting this Friday. As long as they are in this effort, I don’t think the EU will attach new sanctions or do a bigger fuss about it; but they will of course make clear to Russia that they have quite a clear picture of what happened to Navalny, and that they do stand ready to make a bigger fuss if Putin shows he wants to turn the situation into an open overall geopolitical contest. Just as it happened with Germany’s handling of the Tiergarten case [the killing of a Chechen exile in the heart of Berlin last year], it will rather be a gradual turning up of the diplomatic heat. It is very unsexy and unspectacular, but that is the way these processes are tyipcally handled.
Autocrats like Putin have repeatedly shown they can easily ignore ‘discrete’ diplomatic pressure. Why wouldn’t Europe, and Germany in the first place, show its anger with a more concrete, effective reaction? There are a lot of wealthy business ties that could be cut, after all, such as the North Stream 2 pipeline project, for instance.
That is a highly debated issue. Basically everyone in Europe seems to oppose that project – the Eastern Europeans fear that it might endanger their energy security, the Southern Europeans complain that they have been blocked similar deals with Russia under the third energy package – and the US too. So freezing it could be a clever response to this diplomatic dilemma. But at the moment I don’t see that happening as the North Stream has strong high-level support in Germany, and Chancellor Merkel herself is very reluctant to tackle the issue. Things might change in the longer run if the Greens, who are very critical of the project and are faring well in polls, get into the next government. At the same time we should not forget we already have tough EU sanctions on Russia in place, which unfortunately are not thoroughly implemented in all 27 countries. Austria, for example, is very much looking into every possible loophole to circumvent them, and that creates distrust and anger amongst European business communities, as well as undermining the EU external action’s overall credibility. That’s why I think what is most needed at this stage is a proper and impartial sanctions implementation verification mechanism at the EU level.
At the same time – and as you mentioned that may hardly be a coincidence – the EU also needs to handle the delicate Belarus crisis, with Lukashenko refusing to give up in the face of weeks-long mass protests. What is there that the EU can do in practice to support the opposition, or at least a peaceful political transition?
That is very hard because we have so few leverages in Belarus. We are basically relying on Belarusian opposition, media, and people for information. We have very few economic levers, and no real ties into parts of the regime – so we can’t really assess the mood of individual ministries or apparatus, whether they are discussing internally dropping Lukashenko, and if so on what conditions. That makes it very difficult to frame an actual policy and advice our diplomats what to do and how to tune their language. In that, the Russians are in a huge advantage because they know the regime; they don’t only know Lukashenko, they know the operatives, they know the security apparatus they’ve been working with for decades, and they can rely on considerable intelligence on the ground. So here we are in an enormously tricky situation, and yes, Navalny made it even trickier because as the rescue plane ‘micro-crisis’ has shown last week, you are basically dependent on the good will of Putin at the same time as you would like to fight him. There the Germans saw meaningful chances to act and to at least save his life, which they probably managed. But in Belarus there are of course many more lives at stake, and it is just enormously tricky to try and act only from the outside. All the EU can do for now is trying to influence the process with some kind of targeted sanctions to regime officials, and bring ahead intensive negotiations with Russia to at least accept the OSCE as mediator between opposition forces and Lukashenko. But if that attempts fail, they will have to shift the blame from solely Lukashenko to Moscow, which will be political trickier for many EU governments.
It seems as after being focused for months on the ‘survival’ fight against the pandemic, the EU has woken up over the summer only to re-discover how nasty its neighborhood looks like: from Russia to Turkey, from Belarus to Lebanon.
Indeed, and that is precisely the reason why Lukashenko had deliberate decided to move the elections into the summer period, thinking that Westerners would be distracted, and his own people would be too busy drinking vodka and having barbecues to go voting. That was his calculation. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t work out.
Cover Photo: Pavel Golovkin / POOL / AFP
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