By Nina Bachkatov
Unsurprisingly, the EU ministers of foreign affairs meeting on 22 February have given the green light for freezing the assets and banning entry of four officials of the Russian police and justice they consider responsible for the “unacceptable treatment” of Alexei Navalny. In October, the EU had sanctioned 6 individuals and one entity for their alleged participation in the poisoning of the opponent. And each 6 months since 2014, it has been prolonging sanctions taken to punish Russia for its Ukrainian adventures.
Russia was only one item on the agenda. Ministers have discussed the Middle East, expressed “worries” or agreed on a set of “though measures” against different governments guilty of political repression and infringements to human rights such as China, Belarus, Iran or Myanmar. But obviously, Russia was a special case in the aftermath of the “humiliating” treatment of its envoy, Josep Borrell, which cannot go unanswered.
The political limits of EU external relations are well known – basically that EU cannot do much as long as it has no common foreign policy and has to find consensus between 27 members with different sensibilities and economic interests.
But this time was different. For the first ever, EU was able to base a foreign policy decision on a legal framework – the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime adopted on 7 December 2020. It contains regulations for targeted measures against any individual involved in gross human rights violations outside the EU borders, and acts going against EU standards of individual and political freedoms.
Of course, the problem with legal provisions is that decisions have to be taken on solid legal basis – in the absence of which EU would seem to behave like the people or the states it condemns. Hence the declarations made on the eve of the meeting, and that we will hear again, if only to justify the dashing of hopes for a stronger answer to the attacks on Navalny and Russia’s growing authoritarianism.
Anyway, it exists now a very specific European approach in defence of its values, albeit it suffers of having been saluted as the European version of the 2012 American Magnitsky Act. Both “Acts” were taken after years of heavy (and costly) lobbying by Magnitsky former boss, Bill Bowder, who made a fortune in Russia before clashing with the Kremlin and being banned to re-enter Russia. But his lawyer was condemned for the alleged fraud and died in jail from untreated illness.
Soon after its adoption in the US, Washington started to pressure EU to follow example by imposing economic sanctions on persons or entities thought to be pillars of Putin’s regime and, in that quality, his accomplice. Parallelly, Bowder was extensively cultivating EU officials, MEPs and foreign correspondents in Brussels. He was heavily pushing for economic and trade sanctions, well in line with the American approach, and his personal vendetta against Putin and the Russian oligarchs who benefited from his eviction.
Europeans decided to keep the accent on an approach better in line with EU’s wish to turn itself into a normative actor in the fields of human rights and democratic values, the same way it did (and does) for economic norms. It felt also the need to stay relevant, without forgetting the largely shared European reluctance for economic sanctions, which are not part of the European DNA as it is for Americans. And keeping a minimum level of dialogue with Moscow, now ready to ‘cut relations’, whatever it means.
Past experiences cast doubt on the tactic of hitting oligarchs to change regimes from inside. It is not enough to say that corruption alone keeps Putin’s regime alive, and that severing the links between oligarchs and Putin will lead to his fall. On the top of that, there are few European companies capable to take over big Russian companies weakened by sanctions; and many Europeans are uneasy with the pious narrative about hitting the riches while sheltering the ‘ordinary Russian’ from consequences of economic and social consequent decline.
This is why Navalny’s cause might have benefited from a more subtle approach, different in Europe and in the Anglo-Saxon world. He has been very active, and articulate during his visits and meetings. While still in Germany, he came to Brussels on 11 November, together with prominent opponents Ilia Yashin, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and Vladimir Milov. They met MEPs and received a maximum media coverage. His wife Yulia also met different national leaders and EU actors.
But then, his chief of staff Leonid Volkov, and Ivan Zhdanov, director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation based in London, came to Brussels again on the eve of the Foreign Ministers meeting to press for sanctions against oligarchs. They had even provided a list of names they have put together with opposition supporters and Western allies by the Foundation. This was looking a step to far, but there were so convinced their choice will be endorsed that EU’s limited sanctions, against officials only, took them by surprise.
This is not the end of the story, and the list will be again on the table, including when the decision will be discussed by MEPs always happy to take a fight with the Commission.
Trade vs politics
But EU is not the place you win political decisions by charismatic postures and clear-cut choices. The attitude of the Navalny’s group might even be counterproductive because, with time, it had turned more and more … Russian. It means very radical, based on emotions, where alternative ideas, or even contradicting facts, are rejected as coming from ‘traitors” or people “sold to the Kremlin”.
This was already the case by the mid-90thies, when Russian reformists began to run the world, with pleas to turn the tap of Western money because it was oiling relations between the Kremlin and the nascent oligarchy, preventing real liberal reforms to take roots.
Successive figures have been seen in the West as future Russian presidents, but they have never properly believed it. Nor their entourage. Nor Russian voters. This is different because Navalny really sees himself as the next president, with his allies forming a new power circle. It means that, if he wants to take over, he has to create his own oligarchy as Yeltsin and Putin did, albeit under different social and economic conditions.
It is difficult to imagine that Russia’s political and economic powers will stay interlinked, as they are everywhere, more and more so in this global world. It means that access to power will start with reshaping economic elites, without which popular reforms will not take place. This might start with the cooptation of some actual business circles ready to change side, under fears of sanctions and hopes that better relations with the West will help their companies.