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Can Navalny reform Russia to what Europe wants? Can Navalny reform Russia to what Europe wants?
by Christos Mouzeviris
2021-02-10 10:38:37
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The past few weeks, we have seen more tensions rising and pressure mounting from Europe towards Russia, following the arrest of the West's revered "Putin Critic," Alexei Navalny. European governments together with EU officials and politicians rushed to condemn the move, while mass protests errupted across the Russian Federation, in support for the country's opposition leader.

Obviously, it was a major mistake and a bad move from the Russian authorities, to arrest a politician and anyone who speaks out against corruption, or is a political figure in the country. It undermines the legitimacy of the government, exposes its weakness and fear, desperation or simply annoyance of the ruling elites towards the actions of an elected representative of the country's voters. That of course in a Western styled democracy, but we often forget that the Russian Federation is not one of them.

nava0001_400The country is not entirely European but Eurasian, and its democratization and Westernization is very recent and fragile, just as many of EU's former Soviet states like Poland or Hungary. If these two countries are having trouble keeping up with the rest of Europe whilst in the EU, what chances does Russia have, in becoming a succesful, fully fledged Western democracy? Especially when to do so, they will have to abide with Western conditions and values, which may or may not be compatible with theirs. Besides, even our democracies are not without major flaws and are we sure that the Russians really want or should become like the rest of us.

Many of the country's Western critics, refer to it as an "authoritarian cleptocracy," and partially they are right. However, they fail to confess Europe's role in the unjustice committed upon the ordinary Russian citizens. If the country is run by a bunch of corrupt oligarchs, who according to Western analysts, steal the wealth from the country as they obstruct democracy, then why this stolen wealth is ending up in European banks and the assets of those oligarchs which are escaping the country, are ending up in Western institutions as they fund Western political parties and leaders. Surely if Europe and America really wanted to help the ordinary Russian people, they would refuse to do business with the country's oligarchs or accept funds from them.

For instance, the Danske Bank scandal was hushed and given so little attention by Western media, because it involved large amount of funds from the family of the Russian President Vladimir Putin (his cousin Igor Putin) and the Russian security service (FSB). The initial claims by a whistleblower, were not properly looked into and hence did not catch enough attention, by the Danish bank's branch in Tallinn. The result, was the greatest money laundering scandal in Europe and potentially the world, yet it was hastily burried ad forgotten.

In addition, we really must examine the background of the Western "hero" Alexei Navalny. In reality, the title of main opposition party in Russia, undoubtedly goes to the social-liberal Yabloko. Anti-government protesters have often rallied around this party, so it is not unusual to see the Yabloko’s flag during protests. It was the only non-system party which managed to secure multiple seats in Moscow’s 2019 local election, despite the standard electoral fraud that often occurs in the country's elections.

Navalny himself was, in the early days, involved with Yabloko. However, he was expelled in 2007 for his far-right views. That same year, he co-founded a new political movement called "The People's Party", which allied itself with two other ethnic nationalist groups called Movement Against Illegal Immigration and Great Russia. All these groups were characterised not only by their zealous nationalism but also by a generalised unsatisfaction with Putin’s leadership, which was considered “too weak”.

Besides, Navalny expressed his support for Russian presence in Ukraine, notably stating that “Russia should strive for the integration of Belarus and Ukraine” and claiming that they are a part of Russia and form only one country together. While he criticised Russia’s policy in Ukraine – because it was led by Vladimir Putin’s government – he has been remarkably silent about his criticism on the annexation of Crimea in itself. When asked about possibly returning it to Ukraine if he was ever to lead Russia, he confirmed that his government would not start such a procedure.

When it comes to the Caucasus, his stance towards the region is even more questionable. He supported Russia in its war against Georgia in 2008, going as far as calling for all Georgians to be expelled from Russia. If we take all the above into account, it is evident that the West's support for him is simply down to "my enemy's enemy, is my friend" approach and mentality. In an effort to oust Putin, America and its European allies are becoming desperate and they stand behind anyone who is only seemingly filling the role of someone who can promote their interests, no matter of his background and intentions. Even if this person is surely a populist himself. But Europe must be careful, otherwise instead of democratizing Russia, it would well destabilize it and that could be a far more dangerous situation.

Imagine if Europe has right next to its border a large, unstable country, in what worse reality could its eastern regions end up. And all this, to serve American interests, or secure German ones. Is it any coincidence, that Navalny got poisoned towards the end of Trump's term and decided to return to Russia almost at the same time as Biden's inauguration, kickstarting massive protests and civil unrest in the country. Is it also a correlation that the Nord Stream 2 debate and squabble between US and Europe-notably Germany, has been heating up in recent months. In mid-2020, the US threatened a second round of sanctions. They were meant as a “clear warning” to companies that aiding the project would not be tolerated by Washington. “Get out now, or risk the consequences,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said. One investor, German energy company Uniper, subsequently said that the US threat increased the likelihood of “a delay or even non-completion of the pipeline.

Navalny's poisoning, sounded slightly peculiar and suspicious from the beginning. Apparently he was poisoned with the novichok nerve agent and he blamed the Russian President Vladimir Putin for it. He is not the only one of course, as many other prominent Russians, especially those critical of the Kremlin, have suffered poisoning attacks in the last two decades. The point is why would Vladimir Putin himself, so obviously try to eliminate his critics with the very same substance over and over again, something that will clearly incriminate him. Could it be that poisoning is used by many of Russia's oligarchs and political elites, and we are in fact witnessing an internal struggle for dominance, which extends and includes external powers and players.

Especially when Navalny's actions, were not always aiming Putin directly, but everyone in his government and not only. Many of Russia's oligarchs and ruling elites were also targeted by both Navalny and even Putin's government itself. The former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, launched an anti-corruption council and plan to tackle the "rampant" problem, which has become "commonplace and characterises the life of the Russian society," according to him. The irony is, that it was Navalny that exposed many corruption allegations against Medvedev, and potentially resulted to the resignation from his position. However the West insists on blaming solely Putin, for all the poisoning that many Russian opposition figures are suffering. And if Navalny's life is in danger, why return to Russia knowing that he will be jailed, or worse now that he is caught, yet conveniently the American leadership has changed. Could it be that there is a desperate effort for destabilization and derailing further European and Russian dialogue and approach, or simply joined economic ventures?

The real reason has obviously nothing to do with helping the Russian people getting rid of a corrupt oligarch or assisting the democratization of the country. The West-notably America has interests in Eastern Europe which they want to promote, even to the expence of ordinary Russian, European and American citizens. Putin and his government or "regime" as they often portray it, although doubtlessly rife with elitism, corruption, nepotism and lack of transparency, is standing in the way. They are asserting the interests of their country or indeed their very own-dressed as national ones, and are strengthening Russia's position in the region and the globe. Western countries do not wish to see this happening; a strong assertive Russia is undesired and feared, rather they prefer a weakened country, cooperative or even submissive to Western interests. Thus they do anything to "cut the head of the snake." In other words, to bring Putin and his government down.

Something that they shamelessly do not agree to do for the equally problematic Turkey and Erdogan, as it would hurt Germany's interests in this case. Additionally, Europe should be very careful when it joins any US led campaigns for the democratization of selected countries. In the past, it wholeheartedly threw its support behind the US efforts to promote democracy in Myanmar, only for later the country's most revered by the West leader, Aung San Suu Kyi to go from a democracy champion and Nobel Prize winner, to a shamed head of a regime that has excused a genocide, jailed journalists and locked up critics.

In Venezuela too, we witnessed another Western failure. After trying to meddle with the country's internal affairs and establish a democratic government, Europe backed the US and stood behind Maduro's opponent Juan Guaido. The European Parliament, initially recognized the latter as the legitimate Venezuelan self-declared interim president and as de facto head of state only two years ago. But by January 2021, EU States no Longer recognized Guaido as Venezuela's Interim President. The move comes as no suprise, as Guaido himself rocked by explosive corruption claims within his ranks for the past two years.

This should ring bells to all of us in Europe, as to the real reasons for keen "democratization" efforts to all of the America's adversaries or regions of interests. Especially when the West itself has an appalling record of dealing with its own whistleblowers- if that is how we chose to see Navalny. Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, revealed many faults in the American democratic system, and we are all aware of how they were treated. Which means that if anyone uncovers government corruption and secrets is consequently charged, trialed and forced to seek asylum in.... Russia!

One thing that the Russians in fact must learn from the West and Europe, is how to deal with dissidents and "populists" as the European establishment often labels those who seek to expose its systemic flaws. In the West we do not jail or poison them, we just ignore, slander and silence them by simply discrediting them as demagogues. Many of the parties that are anti-systemic in Europe, even if partially or substantially focus on real problems that the ordinary Europeans are faced with, are just being ridiculed and categorized in the same groups as radical and extremist right or left-wing parties. If that fails, then it is very hard for them to get funds from the establishment, thus they fail to gain popularity so they utlimately dismantle. However it is certain that similar parties favoured by the West in competing countries, will always find funds to continue their struggle.

I am not convinced that Europe is adopting the best approach when comes to Russia. Although ideally, I would love to see the country closer to the rest of Europe and with a similar, political system. We use democracy and the failings of others in it in order to intervene and manipulate their internal affairs, however we often overlook our own shortcomings. The struggle between the two blocks is purely economic and political, with a facade of righteousness from both sides. If Europe truly wants a democratic Russia, then why doesn't it throw itself wholeheartedly behind the Yabloko party, rather a populist and opportunist like Navalny. Why it does not mind accepting Russian dirty money in its banks, yet it cries of "Russian meddling" in Western democracies. Why Europe is succumbing to US demands and pressure, to scrap a closer EU-Russian energy cooperation or sabotage any dialogue to conciliate tentions between the two. Clearly the Americans are not that interested in promoting a "greener EU", by weaning the block's reliance to Russian fossil fuel, since they are the only country denouncing and leaving the Paris Agreement.

I would rather support dialogue, even if this means a prolonged and coordinated effort to soothe out any differences between Europe and Russia, that either they like it or not, they are bound to each other by history, borders, politics, trade, often conflicting ideologies, culture and warfare. However these discussions should not be influenced or derailed by any external party, whether this be USA or China. Right now Europe is seeking to expand its influence eastwards, entering former Russian dominated territories. To gain leverage, it relies on American support but ultimatelly, it only complicates things as the US adds its own interets in the equation. At some stage Europe must understand that it cannot perpetually expand eastwards, it just lost a key member in the west-the UK and it failed to integrate 3 others: Norway, Iceland and Switzerland.

Russia on the other hand must accept the changes that occured since the '90s, resulting to the fact that many of its former republics, now wish to align themselves with Europe. That need not be a disaster for the Russians, if they are not cut off entirely from the market of both their former territories and that of Europe. Something that the Americans and their Atlanticist European allies want, and is the cause of such dangerous powergames. Nations located between Europe and Russia should be able to decide their own future, but that must not be an "either you are with us or against us" arrangement. In fact they could act as a bridge which brings the two major European players (EU and Russia) closer, however that is viewed as unacceptable development still, in many powerful circles on both sides of the Atlantic.

And as result, Europe and Russia continue to drift apart, and no Navalny could ever bridge the gap or transform Russia to something that Europe could ever work with.

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