Alex Petriashvili, Senior Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
Judge Repnikova of Moscow’s Simonov District Court, on February 2, 2021, sentenced Alexei Navalny to two years and eight months in prison. Navalny will serve his time in a corrective labor colony. It is worth noting that Judge Okuneva refused to participate in this farce, and as a consequence, her name was quickly taken down from the court website (to be honest, even the existence of such a website surprised me, while the walls of the RAI office of Moscow’s Khimki “militia” is decorated with photos of Iagoda and other butchers). Further, the chairman of the court resigned.
No matter how rhetorical it may sound, we have every reason to ask the question: who did Judge Repnikova sentence: the oppositionist Alexei Navalny, the “permanent” President of Russia Vladimir Putin, or entire Russia, with its 145 million population?
Actually, Alexei Navalny was sentenced by Vladimir Putin himself and his system when they decided to assassinate him through poisoning. Fortunately (or otherwise for some), Navalny survived. The international investigation, despite strong opposition from the Russian authorities, has accumulated more than enough evidence to prove that the substance “Novichok” was used in the poisoning, and in identifying the perpetrators of this operation, everything pointed towards the Kremlin.
As Navalny’s health improved day by day, the only hope left to the Russian authorities was that he would not return to his homeland and would instead continue to criticize Kremlin from the Europe. To supplement this futile hope, threats from the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service gradually intensified. They said Alexei Navalny had grossly violated the rules of mandatory check-in of his conditional sentence, and he would certainly be imprisoned upon his arrival in Russia.
Navalny was indeed facing a choice: knowing he would be arrested if he went back to Russia, he could, in his own words, “set up a relatively small bunker in Germany” and fortify himself there, or return to Russia, and subject himself to the harshest sentence. As we have all seen, he chose a difficult but in truth the only right decision for a politician of his ambitions.
Almost everyone anticipated what would come to be. For the charges, found by the European Court of Human Rights to be legally unfounded in 2017, Alexei Navalny’s conditional sentence was replaced with 2.8 years of imprisonment.
The bad news for the Russian authorities did not end with Navalny returning to Russia. After Navalny was transferred to one of Moscow’s toughest prisons “Matrosskaya Tishina”, his team uploaded a video to YouTube investigating Vladimir Putin’s $1.5 billion palace in Gelendzhik. The number of views exceeded 100 million, which surprised even Navalny himself. Putin was forced to make an uncomfortable decision. As a result, the ownership of the palace was claimed by a member of his closest entourage, billionaire Arkady Rotenberg. In my opinion, this decision was belated and very unconvincing.
Navalny’s arrest at the airport and the decision to imprison him for 30 days triggered a highly critical attitude across Russia. Prior to this, only the distant Khabarovsk maintained the spark of protest (miraculously, but very symptomatically) responding to Navalny’s call to protest corruption, kleptocracy and disorder in the country, or more precisely, the rule of the regime based on the special services, law enforcement agencies, the armed formation of the “Rosgvardia”, and Kadyrov’s criminal gangs. Now, though, we saw 100 to 200 thousand people come out to protest in a hundred Russian cities on January 23. Despite the freezing weather and the cruelty exercised by the “Omon”, people were no longer afraid of the system. Thousands of people were arrested, but during the second protests on January 30, tens of thousands of people took to the streets again. According to the polls, most of the demonstrators were between the age of 18 and 35. Most notably, more than 40% of the demonstrators were protesting for the first time. Interestingly, the 5% of those who took part in the protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg do not trust Navalny personally (https://www.svoboda.org/a/31080892.html), while 55-60% (https://www.svoboda.org/a/31080892.html) only partially trust him. Nevertheless, they deemed it necessary to take part in the rally to protest the dire situation in the country.
The Russian authorities were particularly brutal during the dispersal of the protests on January 23 and 30, and again on February 2. The reasoning underpinning the methods of such brutality was best explained by Navalny himself in the court: “They catch one to intimidate millions.”
The sentencing of Navalny has provoked a highly negative reaction among the democratic community. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken strongly condemned the actions of the Russian authorities and demanded the immediate release of both Navalny and thousands of illegally detained people. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, European Commission Vice President Josep Borrell, and other world leaders have made similar demands and made sharply critical statements.
How might events unfold in the near future within Russia, and what will the impact be on the already extremely tense relations between Russia and the West?
Unequivocally, the rallies in Russia have shown that a very serious tendency to protest has been lit in society, which is not only the result of Navalny’s arrest, and it will inevitably increase even more prior to the parliamentary elections scheduled for the fall. The radically deteriorating economic situation in recent years has played an important role in the growing negative attitudes towards the government. In addition, the restriction of freedom of speech in Russia has revived memories of a difficult Soviet past for many. Most importantly, the citizens of Russia have simply grown tired of the same president, and became even more bitter when confronted with the reality of his “immortalization.” They no longer want to be ruled by a president who is practically a leper in a democratic community, and because of his actions, the attitude towards Russia in the world is deteriorating day by day. It seems that the legend of “King Vladimir – the Collector of Russian Lands” is coming to an end, and there are all the conditions for him to go down in history, as Alexei Navalny predicted, as “Vladimir – Poisoner of Russians” (I still hope that he will end up in the Hague tribunal).
Such a leader, the head of the system, the “mafia boss” if you will, can be a threat to the system itself, and the oligarchs fabulously enriched through corrupt deals are prompted to think about change. Yet, this requires the democratic community to act quickly and effectively. According to senior fellows at the Atlantic Council, the renowned American diplomat Daniel Fried and the expert Andreas Umland, the West should immediately deal a decisive blow to Putin’s closest circle by imposing sanctions. In their opinion, this list may even include people published by the London-based “Anti-Corruption Foundation”. The famous oligarch Roman Abramovich tops that list. The top seven also includes Andrei Kostin, President of VTB Bank; children of the security service leadership Patrushev and Bortnikov (Patrushev’s son is the Minister of Agriculture, while Bortnikov’s son is the vice-president of VTB Bank); the former First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov; Minister of Healthcare Mikhail Murashko, and the most prominent face of the Russian propaganda machine – Vladimir Solovyov.
As for how effective sanctions can be, the highly experienced Daniel Fried has a very interesting argument: “When Reagan labeled the Soviet Union an ’empire of evil,’ many in America did not like the term. However, imprisoned Polish dissidents realized that the free world had heard their voice and they were not alone.”
I cannot but agree with Daniel Fried, and those who support immediate tough actions, because Putin and his entourage only understand a show of strength through firm measures.
As such, if the processes in Russia continue as we are witnessing, and the free world is firm and steadfast in its positions and actions, the decision made by Judge Repnikova will be a verdict for the Russian president, a trampoline for Alexei Navalny (if he survives prison) to the top of the Russian government, and a new chapter in the rich history of Russia.