Spotlight European Integration – VII – Navalny and the Russians deserve vocal solidarity from SE Europe

Blog Post by Emil Kirjas, Founder of Kirjas Global, Vice President of Liberal International

Spotlight European integration blogpost series tracks the progress of EU enlargement with a liberal perspective, looking at Europe’s future.

As Navalny remains defiant in front of the Russian judiciary and thousands continue to protest across the country, it is important to express solidarity across Europe. The protesters who have been bold to go out in the cold after Navalny’s arrest call for the protection of the freedoms for assembly and speech that are guaranteed by art. 35 of the Russian Constitution and the international agreements that Russia is part of.

From medical treatment to prison

Having been cured after the assassination attempt with a nerve agent attack, Navalny flew from freedom in Western Europe directly into a prison cell in Russia. Outcry by the European and Western governments followed immediately after the reports of Navalny’s arrest at the Moscow airport. The EU issued a Declaration by its foreign policy chief Josep Borrell condemning Navalny’s detention as “unacceptable” and calling for his immediate release. Ministers from virtually all EU member states voiced their protest. Especially loud were those from Central Europe and the Baltics demanding EU’s immediate response with further sanctions on Russia. Liberal leaders from all ranks across Europe were vocal and united in their messages demanding Navalny’s release. ALDE Party President Hans van Baalen blamed Putin’s regime for “failed [attempt] to assassinate Alexei Navalny”, while Renew Europe Group leader Dacian Cioloş called Navalny’s “defiance & bravery is inspiring” and pushed for adoption of an urgency resolution in the European Parliament. Unfortunately, these calls were not followed by an action – the European Union foreign ministers at their meeting in Brussels could not agree on further sanctions against Russia. They have rather sent the Borrell to a poorly prepared mission to Moscow to convey the European discontent directly to the leadership in the Kremlin. Borrell unsuccessful mission in the views of many European liberals failed to show European support to Navalny and the Russian opposition.

Reaction in the South East Europe

The initial declaration issued by the EU was joined by the Candidate Countries North Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania, as well as Ukraine and the EEA and EFTA countries. Expectedly, the Candidate Countries Serbia and Turkey did not sign up to the EU’s position. They both maintain close political and economic ties with the Kremlin. Turkey has for quite some time drifted away from the values of democracy and Human Rights. The Serbian leadership instead of criticizing Russia over Navalny’s continued being one of the two European countries that inoculates its citizens with the Russian “Sputnik V” vaccine and even recently signed an agreement for its production in Serbia.

In Bulgaria and Romania, governed by centre-right coalitions, there were clear statements from the Foreign Ministries in line with the EU’s position. The liberal members of the Renew Europe Group from Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Slovenia voted positively for the urgency resolution in the European Parliament demanding significantly tighter EU sanctions against Russia. The Bulgarian socialists not only missed just the vote on EP Resolution but were blamed nationally for their deliberate silence over the developments in Russia.

Rather surprisingly, the EU declaration was not echoed either institutionally by the Foreign Ministries or personally by the Prime Ministers or the Foreign Ministers of the other Western Balkan countries. One would have expected reactions from Albania, which held the OSCE Chairmanship until 31 December last year, or from North Macedonia, which is to hold OSCE Chairmanship in 2023. After all, as leading nations of OSCE it is their duty to alert when the principles of the Organisation are being breached, not only during the periods when they chair the key European institution. Even among the liberals in the Western Balkans there was no reaction, with the exception of the Macedonian liberal democrats which shared on their social media the ALDE call to Free Navalny. If this is a more negligence or a new trend caused by the Corona-vaccine diplomacy of Russia, time will tell.

Inexcusable breach of international obligations

The treatment of Navalny is in clear breach of Russia’s international obligations deriving from its membership in OSCE and the Council of Europe. ” In the words of Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, the most recent judgment ordering Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment for 3.5 years “defies all credibility and contravenes Russia’s international human rights obligations”; and his conclusion was that the Russian authorities are “undermining the integrity of the European system of human rights protection.” Also, the European Court of Human Rights had previously ruled his custodial sentence as “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable. The most recent blogpost of the EU Foreign Affair’s chief after his visit to Moscow confirms that “Russia is progressively disconnecting itself from Europe.”

Consequently, what happens with the disrespect of human rights and democracy is not only an internal affair of Russia, but it is a serious matter of the breaching of international treaties and agreements. That attitude can be neither ignored not side-lined. The international agreements exist to be respected and every time they are violated the international liberal order that we have painstakingly developed since the World War Two is being threatened. The respect for human rights based on the international standards by which the Russian Federation and other European countries are bound to is a matter that concerns everyone in Europe.

European unity and determination essential

The European structures, be it OSCE or Council of Europe, and especially the European Union, are based on respect of democracy, human rights and rule of law. If the EU foreign affairs chief sees Russia and EU on a collision course, since Russia is looking at democratic values “ as an existential threat”, that could even be a serious threat to the European peace and security.  The current situation is not only uneasy, but it is rather dangerous for Europe. It calls for unity and determination among all Europeans in expression of solidarity for Navalny and the oppressed Russians, in particular by those who believe in liberalism and promote it politically.

As Navalny is defiant in front of the politicised judiciary and the Russians continue to protest, it is important to stress that expressing solidarity to them is not only about standing up for an individual or a political position. This is also a case of standing up for Europe and European institutions based on shared values of freedom, democracy and respect for human rights.