EU support for Russian democracy is inadequate

FILE PHOTO: Protestors rally in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia January 31, 2021. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Editor's note:

After EU High Representative Josep Borrell’s ill-fated trip to Moscow, Europe must change its Russia policy to focus on principles and people, writes Constanze Stelzenmüller. This post originally appeared in the Financial Times.

“A very complicated visit,” was the verdict of the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on his trip to Moscow last week to protest at the jailing of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. In a statement published on Sunday, he added: “An aggressively-staged press conference and the expulsion of three EU diplomats during my visit indicate that the Russian authorities did not want to seize this opportunity to have a more constructive dialogue with the EU.”

That would be one way of putting it. Borrell — the first EU official to travel to Moscow since 2017 — had demanded Navalny’s “immediate and unconditional release.” He also attempted to lay out areas of potential co-operation, such as pandemics and climate change. But Borrell got exactly zero concessions from the Kremlin.

Instead, he had to listen to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov call the EU an “unreliable partner” and accuse European politicians of lying about Navalny. He found out about the expulsions during the meeting. In sum: Borrell was subjected to a brutal, calculated public humiliation.

To be fair, Borrell’s disastrous sally was only one in a series of inadequate and incoherent European responses to the repression of Russia-wide demonstrations of as many as 120,000 people which culminated in the arrests of at least 10,000 protesters. European leaders have united in sharply condemning the actions of Vladimir Putin’s government. But they seem bereft of ideas of what to do about them, except for vague threats of additional sanctions.

Worse, in a hastily convened joint appearance with Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday, French president Emmanuel Macron contradicted his own Europe minister, Clément Beaune, who had called on Berlin to drop the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Germany’s president Frank-Walter Steinmeier described it as a “bridge” to Russia that should not be cancelled.

True, Nord Stream 2 is likely to go down in history as one of Merkel’s greatest policy mistakes. Most other EU member states oppose the pipeline. It undermines the security of eastern Europe and of Ukraine. And it provides political support — plus funding, should it become operational — to a rattled Russian regime whose avarice and corruption has impoverished and alienated its citizens in the middle of a pandemic. If Nord Stream 2 is a bridge, it leads only to the Kremlin.

But the fate of Russia’s civil society cannot be weighed against a single pipeline project. Nor will this week’s tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats suffice. The Kremlin’s serial external aggressions since the 2014 annexation of Crimea and its domestic excesses (which, far from being internal affairs have violated Russia’s obligations under international law) require a far more strategic and comprehensive European response.

It is time to shift the focus of Europe’s Russia policy: away from diplomats and pipelines, to principles and people.

Russia is a member of the Council of Europe, and of the European Convention on Human Rights. Violations of human rights in Russia are therefore the business of all Europeans. Direct support for Russian civil society could backfire given Putin’s well-known paranoia about foreign interference. Europeans should make it clear that what they are offering is solidarity with the desire of Russians for decent governance — on their terms, not ours. Generous stipends and visas for Russian students to study in Europe would be a disinterested and practical gesture.

Even more importantly, European governments should target the assets and estates that Putin’s henchmen and oligarch enablers have amassed in Europe. The “European Magnitsky Act” is named after the Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow jail in 2009. Adopted in December, it allows the EU to freeze the assets of, ban entry to, or prohibit dealings with human rights abusers wherever they are. It’s time to use it.

Lastly, we Europeans need to crack down hard on the tools that the Kremlin uses to weaken our own democracies and to divide us: propaganda, disinformation, cyberaggression and corruption. Germany should also suspend Nord Stream 2, or at least signal that it would not veto European sanctions against it.

A Europe that uses its considerable leverage in this way would be acting on its principles and also in self-preservation. Above all, it would hold out a hand to ordinary Russians. That might in turn give new hope to civil societies under threat elsewhere, such as in Belarus, Myanmar, Hong Kong or China.