Tuesday

31st Jan 2023

Navalny jail shows grim reality of Russia-EU diplomacy

  • The prison were Alexei Navalny is being held shows another face of Russia (Photo: Ivan Cherkasov)

Photos from inside the prison where opposition hero Alexei Navalny is being held show the grubby reality behind Russia-EU diplomacy.

A Russian court sentenced Navalny to three and a half years on bogus charges on Tuesday (2 February), while police arrested another 1,400 pro-Navalny protesters.

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  • Alexei Navalny following his arrest last month (Photo: Alexei Navalny)

He is being held at the Matrosskaya Tishina prison in Moscow until his appeal is heard, when he is likely to be transferred to a more remote penal colony.

Foreign ministers from Germany, Lithuania, and Sweden, among other EU states, redoubled calls for his release on Tuesday, ahead of a high-profile trip to Moscow by EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell on Thursday.

"I call for his immediate release," Borrell also tweeted.

Borrell is to meet Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, most likely at the foreign ministry's Gothic palazzo on 17 Spiridonovka Street, a stone's throw from the iconic Red Square and Kremlin complex.

The VIP treatment will mark the first time an EU top diplomat has visited Moscow in four years.

The event's high value for both sides is clear from the fact most trips have been cancelled due to the pandemic.

There will be no concrete agreements, or "deliverables" in diplomatic terminology.

Instead, Borrell and Lavrov are to discuss "strategic" issues - grand international affairs, such as nuclear non-proliferation and EU neighbourhood conflicts.

Borrell has also asked to meet Navalny and other dissidents during his three-day visit.

The Kremlin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said there was no reason for such a meeting on Tuesday.

"They [Borrell] and [Navalny] are not relatives, they don't know each other, they are nobody [to each other]," Peskov said.

It would be "stupid" if the EU linked Russia relations to Navalny's case, Peskov added, amid talk of potential new targeted EU sanctions on Russian officials.

The Russian foreign ministry's spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, also complained that EU diplomats had attended Navalny's court hearing.

"It's not a normal practice ... when diplomats, the more so, collectively, are present when cases of not their citizens are tried it is rather a political move," Zakharova said on Tuesday, after some 20 European and US diplomats went along.

Washing facilities at Matrosskaya Tishina (Photo: Ivan Cherkasov)

Borrell-Navalny meeting

Peskov did not categorically rule out a Borrell-Navalny meeting.

But if Borrell is allowed to go and see the Russian anti-corruption campaigner in Matrosskaya Tishina, he and European media would see a face of modern Russia that is a far cry from the pomp of Lavrov's Gothic mansion, not to mention the $1bn (€830m) palace that Navalny recently accused Russian president Vladimir Putin of building himself on the Black Sea coast.

The photos of the prison published by EUobserver go back to 2009, when a former inmate, anti-corruption campaigner Sergei Magnitsky, was killed there.

Some show just how impoverished Russian prison health services appear, compared, for instance, to the German hospital where Navalny was recently treated after Russian spies poisoned him with a chemical weapon.

Other pictures show squalid washing facilities and general living conditions.

There have been some renovations in Matrosskaya Tishina in the past 10 years, according to Ivan Cherkasov, a Russian émigré living in London, who used to work with Magnitsky.

And there are no reports that Navalny has been mistreated while he has been there.

Medical facilities at Matrosskaya Tishina (Photo: Ivan Cherkasov)

'Stakans'

But a few of the photos also showed that inhuman treatment was normal.

Some of the cells - called "stakans", a Russian word meaning "cylinders" or "glasses" - are so small that prisoners can just about sit down inside.

"In many cases, they're used as torture chambers, where a person is locked in for a substantial period of time without being able to move, causing psychological and physical suffering," Cherkasov told EUobserver.

"Many of these cylinders, though not the ones shown in these pics, are so tiny that prisoners can't even sit down. All they can do is stand," he said.

"You can imagine what a human being feels like after a few hours of standing upright, bricked up in the wall," he added.

Matrosskaya Tishina held "all kinds of people - businessmen under investigation, political activists, protesters, and other detainees", Cherkasov noted.

"It's notorious for extracting false confessions under torture," he said.

Some 'cylinder' cells are even smaller (Photo: Ivan Cherkasov)

Borrell's choice

Meanwhile, back in the diplomatic salons, Borrell will have a stark choice to make, one EU diplomat predicted.

Borrell will either "play along" with Russia's line on the need to mend EU relations, in which case he might be "rewarded" with the positive media coverage that a Navalny prison-visit would give him, the EU source said.

Or Lavrov might make a laughing stock of his EU guest, for instance, by belittling Borrell in a press briefing, as well as denying him a Navalny photo-opportunity, if Borrell is too critical of the Russian regime.

"They'll probably keep him [Borrell] guessing on the Navalny visit until the last minute [of Borrell's trip]," the EU diplomat said.

Some EU states, especially former Iron Curtain ones in central Europe, were unhappy that Borrell was reaching out to Russia in this way.

He is doing it on his own initiative, without being asked to by EU capitals.

But "the Russians are using Navalny to try to split EU solidarity even further," the EU diplomat warned.

And if that was true, then the dirty bathrooms and 'stakans' of Matrosskaya Tishina aside, Lavrov's use of Navalny as a hostage also showed the grubby tactics behind Moscow's diplomatic facade.

Lavrov-Borrell meeting likely to take place at 17 Spiridonovka Street (Photo: progulkipomoskve.ru)
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