Navalny case strains EU-Russia relations

In January of this year, the oppositionist,
blogger and lawyer, Alexei Navalny, was charged with defrauding Kirovles, a
state-owned timber company. According to investigators, as advisor to the
governor of Kirov Oblast, Navalny allegedly organized the theft of corporate
property worth 16 million rubles ($510,000).

The Investigation Committee of
Russia (ICR) stated that it had managed to gather enough evidence to prosecute.
The ICR spokesman for Kirov Oblast, Andrei Vasilkov, described the case as
“common in the economic sphere.”

Many would beg to differ:
ranging from Navalny himself and his like-minded supporters to the flank of
European politicians and diplomats closely monitoring the progress of the
trial, who have attended hearings and openly stated that the case “has special
significance.”

Alexey Navalny. Photo by AP

The verdict could impact relations between Russia and
Europe. The main question is how.

According to the director of
the Moscow Carnegie Center, Dmitry Trenin, the lawsuit is tainting the atmosphere
of bilateral relations. He is sure that a conviction would not lead to instant
ramifications in the two sides’ long-term economic or political relations.

“Nevertheless, Western leaders will, of course, be forced to censure the
political nature of the trial of Alexei Navalny, the bias of the Russian
judiciary and the pressure on non-sanctioned opponents,” notes Trenin.
“It would be comparable, on a smaller scale, to the West’s reaction to the
guilty verdict brought against Khodorkovsky.”

In comment about Europe’s
options in the Navalny case, he stated that it would be a mistake to respond by
reneging on agreements already reached or freezing negotiations in progress,
such as the introduction of a visa-free regime for Russian citizens to the EU.

“Those
in Europe who would like to see a more civilized Russia should strongly
advocate the abolition of visas,” asserts Trenin.

Alexei Mukhin, general director
of the Center for Political Information, is convinced that “the Europeans
have always managed to divorce politics from economics and remain true to themselves.”

Related:

Analysis:What does Navalny get from running for presidency?

In other words, they will not attempt to hinder the growth of the EU’s economy
and break off negotiations on visa-free travel to Europe for Russian citizens
for political reasons.

Former head of the Policy Planning Department of the
French Foreign Ministry, Marie Mendras, agreed in an interview with Kommersant Vlast: “The
establishment does not want to turn the current situation in Russia into a
political issue, since economic diplomacy is a priority for Paris.”

“However, the trial of
Alexei Navalny will be widely discussed in European circles long known for
harboring anti-Russian sentiment, including the OSCE and the European
Commission,” says Mukhin. The matter is also fertile ground for proponents
of a European equivalent to the Magnitsky list.

“Even U.S. society is
beginning to doubt the expediency of the Magnitsky list. Many in the US regard
the act as unconstitutional, since those listed were selected according to
arbitrary criteria, besides which none of the persona
non grata
 had been the
subject of a legal investigation prior to their inclusion in the list,”
Mukhin points out.

“If Europe wants to draw up its own Magnitsky list,
there must be a judicial decision. Such a ruling would be unprecedented and
naturally provoke a series of responses from Moscow, complicating matters even
further.”

However, the European
Parliament’s attitude to the trial is openly critical.

The deputy head of the
European Parliament on EU-Russia cooperation, Werner Schultz, said the
following in an interview with Kommersant
Vlast
: “The Navalny case is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a
whole stack of lawsuits and investigations related to the protests against
Putin’s inauguration a year ago. It is time for the EU to follow America’s
example and adopt the Magnitsky list.”

Related:

Opposition leader Navalny pays for politicizing

New fraud inquiry started against Navalny brothers – Investigative Committee

Trial of opposition leader Navalny postponed

Lastly, a third viewpoint is
held by renowned Russian expert and president of the National Strategy
Institute, Mikhail Remizov. In his opinion, the trial of Alexei Navalny will
mainly impact the dynamics of Western public opinion: it will further cloud
Russia’s already negative image in the eyes of Europeans.

Remizov’s opinion is shared by
former Polish Foreign Minister (1993-1995), Andrzej Olechowski: “I can’t
imagine there will be any sanctions,” he said in an interview with Kommersant Vlast.

“Russia is not a
country that will take them lying down. However, such cases will lead to ever
greater frustration and disappointment with Russia. That could set Moscow’s
relations with the EU back many years.”

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