The sentencing of Alexey Navalny to three and a half years in a penal colony, on trumped-up charges, was a grotesque infringement of elementary human rights.  This sentence in a new version of the show trials which demonstrated that the Russian judicial system does not act independently, but on the orders of the Kremlin.

Till now there has been n investigation into the poisoning of Navalny in August 2020. As a result, the victim – a Russian citizen poisoned on Russian soil presumably by agents from Russia’s FSB intelligence service – was turned into the culprit. This new prison sentence demands swift sanctions by the EU.

Russia’s actions were also a slap in the EU’s face. The bloc’s foreign policy coordinator, Josep Borrell, traveled to Moscow for talks with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on February 4. Before his sentencing, Borrell had expressed his interest to meet also with Navalny. European foreign ministers have delayed a decision on new sanctions against Russia shortly after Navalny’s arrest and have waited for the result of Borrell’s Moscow talks.

This time around, however, the usual sanctions against Putin’s cronies (no visas to the EU and closures of their bank accounts) will not be sufficient. A halt to the Nord Stream II pipeline project – at least temporarily – is inevitable. The natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany is nearing its completion, with only 180 km still needing to be laid.

The €10 billion project would deliver Russian gas to Germany and make it a regional gas hub. The EU has to show solidarity with Navalny and the peaceful protesters who are violently attacked by Russia’s various police forces. Even if that means problems for European investors, Putin has crossed a red line.

The new EU regime, which has taken punitive measures for human rights violations, is also expected to target other people involved in the poison attack on the politician. MEPs have also called for punishing those oligarchs and propagandists within the Kremlin who have close ties to President Putin. Some of them, like Austrian Social Democrat Andreas Schieder, have called on the EU’s member states to halt the construction of Nord Stream II.

Having failed to kill him or force him into exile, the Russian apparat was already busy inventing new charges to indefinitely keep Navalny out of politics and away from the country’s Duma elections that are scheduled for next autumn.

Despite many fearing that there will be another attempt on his life, Navalny showed extraordinary courage in returning home. Navalny offered Russia the choice between a brutal kleptocracy and the chance to develop an open, free society.

Despite police truncheons, tear gas, and arrests – often directed at many journalists – huge crowds across the country made their preference clear. They protested in dozens of cities despite freezing temperatures and endured beatings and arrests.

This is a sign that at last something has changed, not just in Moscow. Jaka Bizlij, the Slovenian founder of “Cinema for Peace” and who saved Nawalny’s life when he flew him out of Siberia in a private jet and to a Berlin hospital, said in a comment published by New Europe, “By imprisoning Navalny, Putin risks turning the opposition leader into a martyr – a Russian Nelson Mandela … Navalny’s team recently released a documentary about Russia’s biggest corruption scandal – Putin’s $1 billion ‘Palace on the Black Sea’. 70 million Russians, half the population, have now watched the two-hour documentary.”

Following the release of the video, Putin was forced to issue a short statement saying that he had nothing to do with the palace. A few days later, his longtime-friend, the oligarch Arkady Rotenberg, claimed to be the real owner.

Bizlij went on to say that such moves proved that “An unmistakeable feeling of enough is enough” is spreading throughout the country as outraged citizens have waved gilded €700 toilet brushes in reference to those in the palace’s “Aquadisco”, with its nightclub and its own underground hockey stadium. Meanwhile, pensioners are struggling to pay their rent.“

In Putin’s Russia, a free press or any free media hardly exists, only the Internet has allowed Putin’s opponents, such as Navalny, to speak out. Under no circumstances should the West turn a blind eye to the silencing of Navalny in the name of maintaining good relations as a new form of “constructive engagement” with Putin. 

The Association of European Journalists (AEJ), of which I have been President since 2014, is now offering the support of its Europe-wide network to Russian journalists seeking to establish an independent Russian AEJ Section committed to the European values of freedom of expression and the democratic rule of law.

The leaders in Moscow should remember that Russia, as a member of the Council of Europe, has signed up to these principles and corresponding conventions.


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