Russian civil society and media rose up on Thursday in the face of the scale of the repression targeting the supporters of the opponent Alexeï Navalny, a file which is at the heart of a visit to Russia by the head of European diplomacy.
The latter, the Spaniard Josep Borrell, arrives Thursday evening for an exchange the next day with the Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov. The meeting promises to be difficult, with Moscow having qualified Western critics as “interference”.
Alexei Navalny was sentenced Tuesday to two years and eight months in prison for violating the terms of a 2014 judicial review. He claims that President Vladimir Putin is trying to silence him after he survived a poisoning last summer.
He will also be tried Friday in another case, for defamation. Most of his close associates have been arrested or prosecuted.
– “Overcome fear” –
The opponent on Thursday called on his supporters to “overcome their fear” and free Russia “from thieves”. “Don’t be fooled by this illusion of strength,” he wrote, in an Instagram post.
One of his allies, Leonid Volkov, however, ruled out the possibility of further immediate protests because “the number (of participants) would drop” and this would lead to “disappointment” as after recent protests in Belarus or in the Russian city of Khabarovsk, said he argued.
“We will always try (to organize meetings) but not every week. We will prepare them well and we will do something big in the spring and in the summer”, continued Leonid Volkov, during a program broadcast on Youtube.
Dozens of media and NGO editors denounced the brutal repression of the pro-Navalny protests on January 23 and 31 as well as on February 2. They gave rise to more than 10,000 arrests – a record in recent years – punctuated by police violence.
“We call on the Russian authorities to put an end to police violence and massive violations of fundamental rights,” wrote 25 personalities from human rights organizations.
As a result of the scale of the arrests, Moscow’s detention centers are overcrowded with people accused or convicted of demonstrating without authorization, an offense punishable by 15 days in prison.
For lack of space, dozens of them were detained in a detention center for migrants 66 kilometers from the capital, in Sakharovo. Relatives queue there, sometimes for several days, to deliver parcels to them.
Beforehand, the detainees spent hours in cellular vans without water or toilets, said the specialized NGO OVD-Info.
– “No repression” –
Russia, already targeted by multiple Western sanctions, remains deaf to criticism.
“There is no repression, just police measures targeting those who break the law,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
The message conveyed by the head of European diplomacy therefore has little chance of being heard. He nevertheless hopes to meet Mr. Navalny.
Some EU states are raising the possibility of new sanctions, in particular Germany. The Russian-German Nord Stream 2 submarine pipeline project is a lever for pressure. France asks for its abandonment, to which Berlin is reluctant.
However, “stopping Nord Stream is a stake for Putin. He fears it”, according to Russian analyst Alexeï Malachenko.
Nevertheless, the mission of Josep Borrell puts an end to the freezing of diplomatic contacts at European level since 2017. Other files than that of Mr. Navalny will be discussed, there is no shortage of disputes over Ukraine, Syria and Libya.
“The relationship with Russia is complex. There are many security issues to discuss,” said Borrell. Mr. Peskov for his part assured that Moscow wanted “to discuss the disagreements frankly”.
During a video conference broadcast on Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron told him that it is essential to continue the dialogue with Vladimir Poutin for “European peace and stability” despite the imprisonment of Mr. Navalny, whom he called it a “huge mistake”.
For his part, the head of American diplomacy Antony Blinken spoke on Thursday by telephone with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov about the “poisoning” of the opponent and called for the release of two Americans detained in Russia.