Friday

14th May 2021

Interview

EU top diplomat should 'ask about Putin's palace'

  • Zhanna Nemstova lives and works in the EU (Photo: nojin)

EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell should needle Russia about president Vladimir Putin's private palace when he is in Moscow next week, Zhanna Nemstova, a Russian activist, has told EUobserver.

"It's worth asking all those whom he [Borrell] will meet about Putin's palace," she said.

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  • Nemstova at last Saturday's protest in Nizhny Novgorod (Photo: Zhanna Nemtsova)

"He [Borrell] should ask who owns the palace. Certainly, he should speak about it in his conversations with [Russian] journalists. Probably, he'll get some answers from the Russian authorities that will be worth making public," she added.

Nemstova is the daughter of Boris Nemstov, a Russian opposition leader who was shot dead in 2015.

Borrell is going to Moscow on a three-day trip on 4 February to discuss "strategic" issues, such as Russia's war in Ukraine and Iran nuclear arms.

He is also going to urge Russia to free Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader whom it poisoned and jailed, and who recently published a documentary showing that Putin had built himself an opulent mansion worth $1bn (€800mn) on the Black Sea coast.

"I see nothing wrong with Josep Borrell visiting Moscow next week, so long as his message to the Russian authorities is clear and it's not just lip service [to EU values]," Nemstova said.

"He [Borrell] should warn Russian authorities of consequences if they continue to behave this way," she said.

And if need be, the EU ought to impose "individual sanctions" on oligarchs who financed Putin's palaces and his regime more broadly speaking, Nemstova also said, mentioning two Russian tycoons - Roman Abramovich and Alisher Usmanov - who were recently named in a draft blacklist by Navalny's associates.

Asked if EU diplomats listened to Russian dissidents like her, she said: "I believe they do. But we'll see what happens".

Nemstova, 36, lives in the Czech Republic and Germany, where she works as a freelance journalist and runs a pro-democracy NGO called the Boris Nemstov Foundation.

But she was in her home town of Nizhny Novgorod, east of Moscow, last Saturday, when tens of thousands of people took part in pro-Navalny protests across Russia.

"It was snowy, but not really cold for a Russian winter - minus 5 or 6 degrees below zero [Celsius]," Nemstova recalled.

"It was the biggest demonstration in the modern history of my city ... There were a lot of students and people under the age of 40," she said, amid estimates that between 5,000 and 10,000 people joined the Nizhny-Novgorod rally.

Asked if she felt safe in Russia, she told EUobserver: "Frankly, I don't feel unsafe".

"The scariest part for me and, I believe, for many of my countrymen, is actually to get out of your apartment and join protesters ... Once you're there, it's not scary anymore. You're inspired by many incredible people," Nemstova said.

More demonstrations were expected this weekend after a judge confirmed Navalny's 30-day detention on Thursday (28 January) and police raided the homes of his associates.

He is being held at the Matrosskaya Tishina prison, a stone's throw from 17 Spiridonovka Street in Moscow, where Borrell is to meet Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on 5 February.

Navalny risks more than 13 years in prison on bogus charges.

And Putin has denied owning the palace.

Putin's embarrassment

But Navalny's film has been viewed more than 100 million times on YouTube, indicating that he was a force to be reckoned with.

"Putin has lost a lot of his legitimacy and his rate of approval is going down, especially among young people," Nemstova said.

Putin's approval rating was just 40 percent in a recent survey by independent Russian pollster Levada, compared to 87 percent in 2014, she noted.

It was 20 percent among young people.

"Of course, it might take years before we see any real political change," Nemstova said.

"[But] my gut instinct says to me that we're witnessing the birth of a new national political moment against the ruling regime," she said.

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