Garvan Walshe: Navalny’s given Putin a splitting hedache: here’s how to make it worse

28 Jan

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

Alexey Navalny’s return to Russia was brave to the point of foolhardiness. The opposition leader was pretty sure that he would be arrested on trumped-up charges, and knew he was putting himself in the life of the hands of the Russian state that tried to poison him only months ago.

The charge against him, of breaking parole by failing to report to a police station – while recovering from that poisoning attempt – wouldn’t be out of place in a Soviet joke book. The message he released, indicating that he has no plans to commit suicide while in jail, was an altogether more grim chronicle of an accident foretold.

In Navalny, the Putin system faces an opponent endowed with the recklessness of ambition. By returning after the state had tried to kill him, Navalny has elevated himself into Putin’s main rival, preparing for single combat against the ruler.

He has thus shown a cynical society that he’s willing to take personal risk. The difficulty for Putin is that his position depends on projecting strength and inevitability. The reason Navalny was barred from running in the last presidential elections was not that he would have won, but that he could have done well enough to make Putin seem beatable – ushering in instability, as even men within the system jostled to suceed the President.

But having failed to kill Navalny, Putin now risks looking incompetent. And while it wouldn’t be difficult to have something to happen to Navalny in prison, it would leave Putin looking weak – a scared dictator who can’t face his opponents, or even admit that the vast palace on the Black Sea is his own.

To Navalny’s personal standing, his Anti-Corruption Foundation organisation must be added. On January 23, it showed it could bring hundreds of thousands out on the streets, all across the country: in minus 50 degree temperatures in Siberia, and third-tier cities such as Ufa and Perm.

This movement cannot be dismissed as reflecting the well-heeled residents of St Petersburg and Moscow – it is composed of the ordinary Russians that Putin himself claims to defend. Perhaps even more importantly, even Russia doesn’t possess enough well-trained riot police to put down simultaneous demonstrations across the country without risking undue bloodshed. It was excess brutality, after all, that drew Ukrainians back out onto the streets after the original Maidan protests had died down.

Navalny’s friends, however, have now to prove that his organisation can maintain its creativity without him (several senior associates of his were also arrested on the 23rd). He has drawn Russians in with skilful media performances and slick reports of anti-corruption investigations – the latest of which exposes Putin’s kitsch Black Sea palace, complete with dancing pole. The upcoming Duma (parliamentary) elections will be a test of whether Navalny’s tactical voting campaign, which worked well in the Moscow City Council elections, can continue with him behind bars.

Navany’s courage has given Putin another headache: getting rid of him risks creating a martyr; keeping him in prison gives a human form to his anticorruption campaign – and releasing him would allow him to continue his opposition.

This choice comes on top of a year in which Putin has found himself outsmarted by Turkey in Libya, spooked by the uprising in Belarus, and losing his biggest ally from the presidency of the United States. The Nordstream pipeline is under increasing pressure, and disinformation campaigns no longer have the advantage of surprise.

The prominence of Russians in the UK — both opponents of the regime and its beneficiaries — means that the UK can play an outside role in making Putin’s headache worse. The 2018 Sanctions and Anti-Money Launding Act gives ministers powers to apply Magnitsky-style personalised sanctions against figures affiliated with Russian security forces who benefit from the regime’s theft of Russian natural resources.

A good place to start would be the list of regime-affiliated figures published by Navalny’s organisation. The anti-money laundering powers should be deployed systematically against bankers, lawyers and estate agents who have facilitated them.

People working for Russian security forces including the National Guard, could be denied visas, and Sputnik and Russia Today’s broadcasting licenses should be reviewed. Ordinary Russians, by contrast, should be welcomed, by giving them generous rights to work after studying, for example. In Tsarist times, Britain became a place of refuge for dissidents and democrats. This is an area where it can lead the world again.

Garvan Walshe: Four actions we can take to help Belarus achieve its freedom

24 Sep

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

The streets of Minsk, bathed in September morning sun, were absolutely empty yesterday. Not a soul under the clear blue sky. A sudden U-turn towards tough anti-Covid policies? Belarus making it to the world cup final? Of course not.

The real reason was that Aleksandr Lukashenko had decided to get himself reinaugurated as president – weeks early – and in secret.

Lukashenko’s regime has been shaken by almost two months of street protests following an election, in which he faced off against Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whose husband he had imprisoned in order to take him out of the race.

The rigging was farcical: observers recorded a middle-aged woman climbing down a ladder outside a polling station with bags of surplus ballots (a ballot-stuffing plan had gone awry when too many voters turned up, and space had to be created for their votes), and nobody believed the 80 per cent vote share officially recorded. Those deserted Minsk streets must have been filled by everyone who actually voted for him.

Lukashenko’s regime, in place since the Soviet Union collapsed, and so unreformed that its security service is still called the KGB, is looking very vulnerable.

Regime thugs initially responded to peaceful demonstrations with extreme violence, but have found protests led by women to be much harder to contain. Balaclava-clad men have been snatching protesters off the streets, but predictably just caused the protests to grow further.

Vladimir Putin has offered the Belarusian regime $1.5 billion, and perhaps covert riot-control support, but appears to have balked at more decisive intervention. Despite rigging his own constitutional referendum to allow him to stay on beyond the term limits he himself included in the previous version of Russia’s fundamental law, Putin finds himself on the ropes. Covid has dramatically reduced oil and gas demand, while protests have taken off, not only in Moscow, but across the country. It was on a flight back from one of those protests, in Siberia, that Alexei Navalny collapsed with Novichok poisoning. The last thing Russia needs right now is another rebellious province.

In these revolutionary moments, the survival of the regime depends on projecting a sense of “inevitability”, Rob Thomas, an Eastern Europe analyst, tells me. Legitimacy has long been forfeited, and the state lacks the sheer repressive capacity to put down such a large uprising. The best he can hope to do is to try and outlast the protesters, and hope the winter cold can send them home.

As much as Putin and Lukashenko might want to believe their own propaganda that this revolution is a CIA or George Soros plot, it is in fact a domestic movement to overthrow an unaccountable leaders who has overstayed his welcome. The pressure for change is coming from inside Belarus. Our job is to keep it in the international spotlight.

As well what might be called the standard toolkit – applying Magnitsky sanctions to regime-connected figures, clamping down on money laundering, preventing the export of surveillance and internet censorship technology, and stepping up funding of civil society through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy – there are specific things that can put pressure on Lukashenko’s regime.

First, Belarus has a surprisingly successful tech sector, responsible for over five per cent of GDP. Such work can be done anywhere, so we can help Belarusian firms and programmers set up legal structures to keep their earnings outside Belarus while continuing to work where they are. Taxes due on this activity could be held in trust, and released to Belarus after it holds free and fair elections.

Second, visas should be relaxed to allow Belarusians who want to work and study abroad to come to the UK and also set up businesses with minimal red tape, on the same terms as the Ankara Agreement used to allow for Turkey.

Third, to blunt Russia’s energy weapon, we should work with Lithuania in particular to enable gas pipelines to Belarus to flow in reverse, and, together with other democracies, provide financial guarantees for liquified natural gas to be sent to a transitional Belarusian government.

Fourth, if further pressure is needed to create pressure for a transition to free and fair elections we could recognise Tikhanovskaya as an interim legitimate president, as part of a negotiating process that would allow both her and Lukashenko to stand down in favour of a neutral but democratic figure.

The empty streets and secret inauguration show that despite Cyprus blocking EU sanctions (an action surely unconnected to the large quantities of Russian money deposited in his banks) Lukashenko is running scared. If we can deny him international legitimacy, and put further economic pressure on the regime, we can play our part in supporting Belarusians’ struggle to choose their own future.