Europe Must Stand With Navalny

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For a second consecutive week, tens of thousands of Russians have taken to the streets to protest the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Judging from the government’s heavy-handed response, Russian President Vladimir Putin views the movement as a serious political threat and means to snuff it out. Western leaders should prepare to act against Putin and his allies unless he relents.

The most immediate concern is the fate of Navalny himself. On Tuesday, a Russian court sentenced the activist to three years in prison for violating the terms of a previous suspended sentence. (He failed to check in while under probation — because he was in Germany recovering from being poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok.) Russian authorities also detained Navalny’s wife and brother and raided the offices and residences of his associates.

The Kremlin’s response betrays growing anxiety about his support among younger Russians. Having long feigned indifference toward his critics, Putin has been forced to deny the findings of Navalny’s investigation into his extravagances, which has received more than 100 million views on social media. For the moment, Navalny’s supporters appear undaunted. Protests have spread to more than 100 cities, from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. Russia’s security services have used batons, tear gas and tasers to subdue demonstrators armed with snowballs and detained 10,000 people, including leading journalists and musicians. With parliamentary elections scheduled for September, it’s possible Putin will resort to greater force to contain public outrage.

The world’s democracies should do what they can to discourage him. President Joe Biden has already shown greater willingness to condemn Russia’s leader than Donald Trump ever did, but the new administration’s national-security team might hesitate to confront Moscow more squarely so soon. Europe’s leaders should step up. They have more at stake in moderating Putin’s behavior and should dial up the pressure to that end.

The EU’s chief foreign-policy official, Josep Borrell, who is visiting Russia this week, should insist on meeting with Navalny and his key supporters. Borrell should warn Russian officials not to make indiscriminate arrests of political activists or use violence to put down protests. If the crackdown continues, the EU should heed Navalny’s call to impose sanctions against Putin’s financial backers under the recently adopted European Magnitsky law, which gives the EU the authority to freeze assets of individuals complicit in human-rights abuses.

Over the longer term, the EU should work with the U.K. and U.S. to strengthen systems for tracking illicit money flows that allow Russian interests to evade sanctions and buy influence in Western countries. European governments should invest in new energy sources to reduce their dependence on Russian gas imports — particularly Germany, which should also halt further work on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline until Navalny is released. Where feasible, Europe should provide support to independent Russian-language media outlets and expand exchange programs to allow more young Russians to study and work in the EU.

A productive relationship with Russia is in the interests of Europe and the world — but not at the expense of Europe’s democratic values, the rule of law and the rights of Russian citizens. Europe’s leaders should make it clear whose side they’re on.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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