13th Apr 2024

Navalny: Putin's 'evil' takes centre-stage at Munich talks

  • The 47-year old dissident left behind a wife and two children (Photo: Michał Siergiejevicz)
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The death of Russia's best-known dissident, Alexei Navalny, caused little surprise in EU circles in Brussels, but saw the Russian regime branded "evil" in Munich, Germany, where top diplomats and security officials were gathered for an annual security conference.

"I knew they'd kill him," was one EU diplomat's first reaction, as news spread online about Navalny's death on Friday (16 February).

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"Killers," said a second EU diplomat, referring to Russian authorities.

A third EU diplomat said: "Very sad, though not entirely surprising."

Petras Auštrevičius, a liberal Lithuanian MEP, also told EUobserver: "Navalny underestimated the [Russian] regime. He was wrong to go back [to Russia] — it was a road to hell".

According to a Russian statement, Navalny died after suddenly falling unconscious in his prison cell in Kharp, a remote town in Siberia, some 1,900km north-east of Moscow.

Russia told the world the same day that US and European VIPs met in Germany for the Munich Security Conference (MSC), a yearly symposium on transatlantic affairs.

The news also came in the run-up to the two-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on 24 February and Russia's presidential election on 15 March.

Dozens of EU leaders, ministers, and top officials blamed Russian president Vladimir Putin for Navalny's death — either because he was murdered, or because of harsh prison conditions.

But his passing had special resonance in Germany, after doctors in Berlin saved Navalny's life in 2020 when he was poisoned with novichok, a Russian nerve toxin, before he returned to Russia in 2021, where he was arrested on trumped up charges.

"I met Navalny here in Berlin when he was trying to recover from the poisoning attack … he has probably now paid for his courage with his life," said German chancellor Olaf Scholz at the MSC on Friday.

Navalny's wife Yulia, who was at the Munich event, said on stage to applause: "We should fight against this evil. We should fight this horrific regime in Russia today".

German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock said: "Navalny was a symbol for a free and democratic Russia. That is precisely the reason he had to die".

German finance minister Christian Lindner said: "Putin tortured him to death".

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, who is German, also said while at the MSC that Navalny's death was "a grim reminder of what Putin and his regime are all about".

The timing prompted speculation on whether Putin was sending a message to Berlin and to Russian people.

"The timing of the killing is not accidental," Auštrevičius said.

One of the EU diplomats said: "Putin is showing us and the Russians he can do whatever he wants ahead of the Russian election".

"Navalny was a kind of political hostage in contacts between Berlin and Moscow. With this, Putin's showing he doesn't care about German relations — if anything good comes out of it, let it be that Germany wakes up to who they're dealing with," the diplomat added.

Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine's foreign minister, made similar comments.

"Politkovskaya, Litvinenko, Magnitsky, Nemtsov, Navalny are only some of the most well-known names on the long list of critics killed by Putin," Kuleba said.

"There was outrage after each murder, but Putin eventually got away with it, and world leaders shook his hand again. This encouraged him to continue killing people," Kuleba added.

EU diplomats are currently discussing the 13th round of Russia sanctions, which were to blacklist another 193 individuals and entities over Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

The EU has also sanctioned Russian officials involved in Navalny's jailing and in that of Vladimir Kara-Murza, another prominent Russian dissident, who is disabled, and whom Putin has likewise sent to a remote penal colony.

But the EU has held off sanctions on Russia's metals, liquid gas, and nuclear-energy sectors, as well as many of its richest men for now.

Many leading EU firms, including Germany's top lender Deutsche Bank, are also still doing business in Russia.

And when asked if Navalny's death was likely to lead to sharper EU action, for instance, when foreign ministers meet in Brussels on Monday, one of the EU diplomats said: "No. Nothing. There'll be a brief [EU] shitstorm on Twitter and that's all".

Russian opposition

Meanwhile, leading Russian opposition figures, most of them speaking from exile, also blamed Putin.

Navalny was "murdered slowly and publicly in prison", said Russian émigré and ex-chess champion Garry Kasparov.

Navalny was now "immortal" and his legend posed a greater threat to Putin, said exiled Russian writer Boris Akunin.

Russian authorities warned people not to gather in protests or memorials on Friday.

"Most Russians don't believe change will ever come from the bottom-up," an EU diplomat said.

Putin is set to rule Russia until 2036 after having amended constitutional limits to multiple terms in office.

"'The villains who robbed their own people got together, recruited soldiers and judges to guard their orgy, and now they're having a feast,' this brilliant phrase precisely describes what is happing in our country," Navalny once said of Putinism, quoting Russian writer Leo Tolstoy.

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