Navalny arrest could prompt inauguration of EU Magnitsky-style sanctions regime

Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny (C) is escorted out of a police station in Khimki outside Moscow, Russia 18 January 2021. [EPA-EFE/SERGEI ILNITSKY]

The EU’s recently approved Magnitsky-style law allowing the 27-member bloc to impose sanctions on human rights abusers could soon come to life as calls grow in Europe to apply the new punitive measures to Russia over the detention of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The 44-year-old critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Sunday (17 January) as he returned to his homeland from Germany, where he received treatment for poisoning from Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent.

Dozens of his supporters, who had gathered at a different airport before Navalny’s plane was diverted, were also taken into custody.

A judge at a hastily organised hearing in the Khimki police station on the outskirts of Moscow ordered Navalny be kept in detention for 30 days, until 15 February.

Police detain Navalny on arrival in Russia, prompting Western condemnation

Police detained top Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny on Sunday (17 January) when he flew back to Russia months after barely surviving a poisoning attack, prompting a new wave of Western condemnation.

Condemnation plus sanctions?

Western nations have so far stopped short of taking punitive action.

Last October, EU member states had already approved asset freezes and travel bans on six Russian officials including the head of the country’s FSB intelligence agency and top Putin aides over Navalny’s poisoning.

“The EU will follow closely the developments in this field and will continue to take this into account when shaping its policy towards Russia,” EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell said on behalf of the bloc on Monday (18 January), echoing calls from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel.

Neither addressed directly the potential for additional sanctions against Putin’s government, which would be a question for member states.

A European Commission spokesman on Monday did not exclude such a course of action. “Discussions are ongoing among the member states, about what would be the best and most efficient follow-up to this very unfortunate event,” he told reporters.

The comments came as Russia’s Baltic neighbours Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia pushed other EU members at a meeting of European affairs ministers on Monday to expand the punitive measures the bloc imposed in October over Navalny’s poisoning.

“Lithuania, in the name of all three Baltic states, suggested considering possible sanctions over the arrest of Alexei Navalny and so-called court hearing that is taking place now,” Lithuania’s Foreign Minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, said.

“We are the realists towards Russia as we live at the border. I hope that some EU capitals will wake up from their optimism and return towards realism,” he added.

At the same time, EU lawmakers of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee also called on member states to “reinforce sanctions applied to Russian officials involved in the poisoning of Navalny and to enlarge their scope”.

“We remind in this context that as of December 2020 the EU has the instrument of the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, the so-called European Magnitsky Act, and shall not hesitate to use it when necessary,” they said.

The EU’s new sanctions regime allows the bloc to impose sanctions on individuals and organisations responsible for human rights abuses anywhere in the world.

Sanctions could be applied against acts like genocide, crimes against humanity, extrajudicial killings, and arbitrary arrests. Other violations could be punished if they are deemed to be “widespread, systematic or are otherwise of serious concern,” the EU then had said.

The original US act was established under then-President Barack Obama in 2012 and designed to target Russian officials deemed responsible for the death of the Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died of mistreatment in a Moscow prison.

However, including Magnitsky’s name in the EU sanctions proposal had been a point of contention for Greece, Cyprus and Italy as well as Hungary, whose governments have close ties to Russia, and had held up the draft plan.

Putting pressure on Moscow

EU leaders are set to meet for a virtual European Council on COVID-19 response on Thursday, where the Navalny case could potentially be raised.

At the same time, EU foreign ministers are scheduled to meet next Monday (25 January), with several member states having announced their intention to address the issue.

“It would be worth exploring possibilities whether the regime could be applied in the Navalny case,” an EU diplomat told EURACTIV, but added that “there is concern that the appetite of some countries to apply sanctions on Russia, in general, is currently dangerously low”.

“There’s no question that it alters behaviour,” Bill Browder, an American-born British financier and political activist who lobbied for the original act, told EURACTIV in December.

“I remember having a conversation with Mikhail Khodorkovsky right after he came out of prison. He told me that prisoners could exactly see a change in behaviour before and after the Magnitsky Act was passed because the jailers were afraid of being added to the Magnitsky list,” Browder added.

However, he also predicted that getting the new EU sanctions regime passed “was only 50% of the battle, while the next 50% of the battle is getting the EU to use the legislation”.

EU to complete Magnitsky-style human rights sanctions regime

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who survived a poisoning conducted by Russia in August, has called upon the EU to target oligarchs close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, the EU is preparing to use a Magnitsky-style law to impose sanctions on human rights abusers.

Western countries should now act and not talk, Kremlin critic and former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky told Reuters on Monday, adding that it would be the only way they can put pressure on the leadership in Moscow.

In the interview, Khodorkovsky called on the West to prioritise sanctions on individuals involved in Russian corruption abroad over sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which is seen in the West as a possible sanctions target.

“The arrest of Navalny means that the Putin regime, his bandit regime, is using totalitarian methods to put society under pressure,” Khodorkovsky said, calling Russia’s president an “ageing autocrat”.

“Putin feels that he has to show that he is the leader in the herd,” he said. “Or these people will believe that he is no longer the top dog.”

Khodorkovsky expressed hope that Navalny would be released but said the opposition leader was more likely to face growing pressure from Russian authorities instead.

“He could be given 10 years (in jail) – that in summary is what we could see at this stage,” he said. “Much will depend on how Russian society reacts.”

[Edited by Georgi Gotev and Frédéric Simon]

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