Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has asked US President Joe Biden to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin by imposing new and more efficient sanctions on Putin and his fellow Russian elites who have large assets abroad. Pictured: Navalny appears on screen via a video link from prison, during a court hearing in the town of Petushki, Russia, on May 26, 2021. (Photo by Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images)
While the world focuses on the tensions between Russia and Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is in the midst of a massive crackdown on what remains of the opposition to his rule.
In late December, Russia's Supreme Court ordered International Memorial and its sister organization, Memorial Human Rights Centre, the oldest human rights groups in the country -- founded in 1989 by, among others, Nobel Prize winner Andrei Sakharov -- to be forcibly closed down. International Memorial documented the political repression and historical crimes of the Soviet Union, including the Gulag prison-camp system, and commemorated its victims. The Memorial Human Rights Centre focused on documenting current abuses, including keeping track of political prisoners.
"Memorial creates a false image of the Soviet Union as a terrorist state," state prosecutor Alexei Zhafyarov said. "It makes us repent for the Soviet past, instead of remembering glorious history." The court, in its decision, cited the need to protect "the right of citizens to access reliable information" and prevent the "creation of a false image of the USSR."
Also in late December, a Russian court ordered the prison sentence of historian Yuri Dmitriev extended to 15 years. Dmitriev worked with International Memorial for three decades to uncover, among other things, mass graves from the era of Stalin's rule. Dmitriev was imprisoned on what is widely believed to be trumped up charges of sexual abuse of his adopted daughter. In January, the governments of Canada, Iceland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Norway wrote in a joint statement to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE):
"We are... deeply disturbed by the continued imprisonment of Yuri Dmitriev. As a local leader of Karelia Memorial and a respected historian, he has dedicated himself to human rights work and research on political repression in the Soviet period. His verdict of 15 years imprisonment on a strict regime is based on spurious charges. We see his imprisonment as a politically motivated response to his research. We call for Mr. Dmitriev's immediate and unconditional release."
Now, in Putin's most recent crackdown, anti-corruption activist and opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Putin's fiercest critic -- already serving a sentence of 3½ years in a penal colony on trumped up charges of fraud -- is facing a new trial. Navalny has been charged with embezzling "more than 356 million rubles ($4.8 million) of donations... Navalny had raised 'exclusively' for his non-profit organisations, including the Anti-Corruption Fund".
Last year, Navalny's foundation, and all associated organizations, were labeled "extremist" by a Moscow court and thereby effectively outlawed. The new charges could lead to up to 15 additional years in prison for Navalny, who has fought corruption in Russia since 2011, and has repeatedly facing trumped up charges of fraud and embezzlement.
Last month, Russian authorities labeled Navalny himself a "terrorist and extremist", along with 11 of his associates. The designation means that Navalny has been added to Russia's official Rosfinmonitoring register alongside organizations such as the Taliban and the Islamic State. The designations represent "a new low in Russia's continuing crackdown on independent civil society" State Department spokesman Ned Price said. People on the terrorist list are effectively banned from Russian society, as their bank accounts are frozen and they cannot take loans or jobs.
Putin is taking advantage of the fact that everyone's attention is directed at Ukraine and that Navalny's trial, in comparison, creates little interest.
"Putin tried to kill Navalny, and now he wants to put him away for 15 years," said Ivan Zhdanov, the longtime director of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation who was also added to list of "terrorists and extremists" in January. Zhdanov was referring to Russian state agents who attempted to murder Navalny by poisoning him with a military-grade nerve agent, Novichok, in 2020. Navalny needed five months in hospital in Germany to recover from the assassination attempt. According to Zhdanov:
"[T]hey're not even trying to create the semblance of a genuine trial... This was the Kremlin's plan. So that in a moment when everyone is following the tensions in international politics, which Putin himself created, he can quietly jail Navalny for another 15 years."
In addition to putting Navalny on trial once more, Russian authorities are seeking to remove all references to Navalny's anti-corruption work from media outlets, including references to Navalny and his team's video report, "Putin's Palace", which was released in January 2021. That report alleged that Putin had built a gigantic 17,691 square meter palace on the Black Sea at an estimated cost of $1.37 billion, paid for by Putin's cronies "with the largest bribe in history." The video, however, remains on YouTube, where it has been viewed more than 121 million times.
Even in prison, Putin is trying to break down Navalny completely. Other prisoners are not allowed to talk to him and since his hunger strike, two inmates have been ordered to follow him around at all times, from morning until night. "Without a doubt, even the simplest decisions about my life here [in the penal colony] get made in the Kremlin, and the important ones—like whether to allow the doctors in—by Putin himself," Navalny told Time Magazine in an exchange of letters. He also asked US President Joe Biden to stand up to Putin by imposing new and more efficient sanctions on the Russian president and his fellow Russian elites who have large assets abroad.
"Putin is without a doubt the wealthiest person in the world. The source of his wealth is power and corruption. And the basis of his power is lies, propaganda and falsified election results," Navalny wrote.
"You want to influence Putin, then influence his personal wealth... Everybody knows the names of the oligarchs and friends of Putin who hold his money. We know those who finance his yachts and palaces. Those who support his second and third families. It takes a majority of these oligarchs to split Putin's elites. Give them a signal that the regime in Russia today will not be an eternal paradise where they can rob the people inside Russia while easily and freely spending their earnings in Europe and the U.S."
Perhaps those sanctions will come about now -- not because of Navalny's plight but because of the threat to Ukraine. While both Democrat and Republican US Senators appear ready to impose tougher sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, they have not been able to agree on specific measures and whether they should be imposed now or later. In response, therefore, Republican Senators have announced their own sanctions package, the Never Yielding Europe's Territory (NYET) Act, which would not only sanction the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but also "Putin's cronies, enablers, and major banks before Russia further invades Ukraine to ensure Putin pays a price now for hybrid attacks already launched."
Much of the wealth amassed by Putin and his inner circle of oligarchs is "probably" held in the US and UK, according to Anders Åslund, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of the book Russia's Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy. This means that US and UK sanctions against them would be highly efficient. Åslund wrote in 2019:
"Total Russian private wealth held abroad is assessed at $800 billion. My assessment is that since Putin's circle got its looting fully organized around 2006, they have extracted $15-25 billion a year, reaching a total of $195-325 billion, a large share of the Russian private offshore wealth. Presuming that half of this wealth belongs to Putin, his net wealth would amount to $100-160 billion...
"Putin's crony capitalism condemns Russia to near stagnation for as long as he stays in power. No political or economic reform is on his agenda, since reform would undermine his political power. Instead, Putin needs foreign adventures, such as the wars in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria to rally his people around the flag.
"The best defense of the West against Putin's authoritarian and kleptocratic regime is transparency, shining light on this anonymous wealth, which is probably held predominantly in the United States and the United Kingdom, the two countries with good rule of law that allow anonymous companies on a large scale and have deep financial markets."
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.