Navalny escalates battle with Putin as EU officials demand his release

Russian opposition figure publishes an exposé of lavish palace, calling it ‘biggest bribe in history.’

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny returned to Moscow
Alexei Navalny after a court hearing at a police station in Khimki outside Moscow, Russia, 18 January 2021 | EPA-EFE /Navalny Press Team Handout

BY DAVID M. HERSZENHORN

January 20, 2021 4:04 am (politico.eu)

Alexei Navalny isn’t waiting for the West to come to his rescue.

As top EU officials noisily demanded his release but took no concrete action, Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who was immediately arrested upon his return to Moscow after recovering in Germany from an assassination attempt, escalated his battle with President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.

With Navalny jailed for at least 30 days in the notorious Matrosskaya Tishina prison, he and his anti-corruption foundation released a searing exposé about a lavish palace on the Black Sea that they allege was built for Putin by his cronies using the proceeds of decades of corruption, in what they labeled “the biggest bribe in history.”  

The stunning multimedia display simultaneously mocked Putin as a madman obsessed with wealth, disclosed the architectural plans of the heavily-guarded compound, and even revealed minute details about the ostentatious furnishings, including the cost of tables and sofas. Throughout the report, which was written in Navalny’s voice, there were dashes of his trademark acerbic humor.

“Vladimir Vladimirovich turned out to be a great lover of sofas,” the report stated. “According to our calculations, there are 47 of these pieces of furniture in his palace. I wonder if he sits on every one or only on the most expensive ones?”

Navalny’s brazen willingness to continue taking the fight directly to Putin emphasized his bravery (critics would say stupidity) in returning to Russia, where agents of the federal security service allegedly tried to kill him in August.

But it also illustrated the limited ability of Western powers to aid his crusade for democracy: German doctors could help save Navalny’s life after he was poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent, but the EU and the U.S. have been unable to pressure the Kremlin into ending its repression of political dissent.

During a debate in the European Parliament plenary on Tuesday, the EU’s high representative for foreign policy, Josep Borrell, led the West’s condemnation cavalry. He denounced Navalny’s arrest as “unacceptable,” demanded his release, expressed relief that he survived the poisoning attack, and noted that in response, the EU in September imposed sanctions on six individuals and a state research institute.

“Any further decision on sanctions is for the Council to take,” Borrell said, a rather equivocal statement given he will lead a discussion of Navalny’s situation in the Foreign Affairs Council on Monday. EU ambassadors are due to discuss the case on Wednesday, but are also not expected to take any immediate concrete steps.  

During the debate, some MEPs called for sanctioning Russian officials who participated in Navalny’s arrest or in the poisoning attack. Several were identified in an investigation by the Bellingcat news site, in which Navalny himself collaborated. Posing as a high-ranking security official, Navalny telephoned one of his alleged attackers, and elicited incriminating statements, in what amounted to a humiliating blow to the Federal Security Service, the FSB.

In testimony to the European Parliament in November, Navalny had urged the EU not to focus on mid-ranking officers of the special services, but rather on the super-wealthy oligarchs close to Putin, many of whom maintain assets in Europe. And on Tuesday one of Navalny’s close associates, Vladimir Ashurkov, published a list of eight names that he said Navalny hoped the West would penalize first. The list included Alisher Usmanov and Roman Abramovich, billionaires who own stakes in U.K. football clubs; as well as Denis Bortnikov, the son of the FSB director, Alexander Bortnikov; and Igor Shuvalov, a Putin ally who is chairman of Vnesheconombank.

In an interview with POLITICO, Vladimir Kara-Murza, a prominent Russian opposition activist who suffered two near-fatal poisoning attacks, urged the EU to impose sanctions on those eight individuals. “Is there anything the West can do, yes there is,” Kara-Murza said. “There have been all these sanctions in recent years, but they were never targeted directly at the most important people.”

In November, Navalny and Kara-Murza told the Parliament that oligarchs close to Putin were getting rich in Russia, and then safeguarding their wealth in the West, buying real estate, yachts and other luxury items. “For years and years, the West turned a blind eye to this,” Kara-Murza said. “It’s high time to put a stop to this. This goes both for the incoming Biden administration and for the European Union.”

Navalny rose to prominence as an anti-corruption crusader, but his battle with Putin has been personal at least since 2014 when Navalny and his brother, Oleg, were convicted on trumped-up fraud charges. Navalny was freed on a suspended sentence, but his brother was sentenced to three and half years in prison, a decision that left the usually unflappable opposition leader in tears, shouting at the judge, “Aren’t you ashamed?”

Russian authorities said Navalny was arrested on Sunday for violating terms of that suspended sentence in 2014.

Kara-Murza said that despite the personal danger, Navalny had no choice but to return to Russia and continue their fight to turn it into “a normal European country.”

“He made the only possible call,” Kara-Murza said. “We know how Putin’s regime deals with opponents. We know what the stakes are.”

The Kremlin similarly seemed to have little choice but to arrest Navalny after taking numerous steps that seemed intended to dissuade him from returning home, including a raid of his offices in November, and warnings that he would be detained.

“The immediate offense that Alexei committed was not registering for his parole,” Kara-Murza said. “The reason he didn’t register is he was recovering from a state sponsored attack. You can’t make this stuff up.”

Adding to the absurdity, Putin, who avoids ever uttering Navalny’s name, had taken credit during his annual news conference for allowing Navalny to leave Russia for treatment. Referring to him as the “Berlin clinic patient,” Putin also denigrated Navalny for never holding a position of responsibility, an ironic criticism given the Kremlin has gone to great lengths at various times to disqualify Navalny from running for public office.

Navalny and his supporters are now focused on the September elections for the Russian Duma, in which they are hoping to carry out a concerted strategy, which they have branded “smart voting,” in which opposition groups agree to support any one candidate that isn’t allied with Putin.

In a statement issued from prison on Tuesday, Navalny compared his cell to his hospital room in Germany, noting that they were very similar but his bed in jail doesn’t have a remote control to adjust the supports for his legs and back. His humor appeared to be intact.

“Here they aren’t sticking needles with tubes in my body and aren’t connecting wires to me (at least not yet),” Navalny said. “And they also speak my native language. A big plus.”

Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.

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