Letter From the Editors

Just when you thought relations between Russia and the collective West couldn’t get any worse…they did. After a Moscow court ruled in favor of the Federal Corrections Service and changed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny’s sentence from a suspended one to real time in prison, the Russian Foreign Ministry locked horns with its European counterparts. Western diplomats crashed the trial proceedings, and their presence created a furor. Official Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the move “a self-revelation of the distasteful and illegal role of the collective West in its attempts to contain Russia.” She went on to say that “even if these Westerners view Navalny as ‘their own,’ he is still a citizen of the Russian Federation.” Both she and presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov speculated that the diplomats’ presence may have been intended to pressure the court.

In a response move, Moscow stated it will expel diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden for their alleged participation in pro-Navalny rallies. This only added to the already tense backdrop for EU High Commissioner on Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell’s visit to Moscow. In fact, the EU’s top diplomat only found out about the expulsion during a working lunch with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov – the news was supposed to break the Monday after Borrell’s visit, but apparently the cat got out of the bag ahead of schedule.

Needless to say, Borrell’s visit was a flop. It was already expected to be tense, even without the diplomatic brouhaha that spoiled the EU official’s appetite. But according to Andrei Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council, Borrell had no choice: “If Borrell had not come, he and his office would have drawn criticism over lack of activity on the Russian track.” But in a typical “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” fashion, the EU diplomat also drew criticism for being too soft on Russia during his visit. On top of that, both the EU and Russia still harbor certain illusions about bilateral ties. Namely, Russia still believes “that it is possible to work with individual European countries and not engage with Brussels, even though European unity remains a priority for France and Germany.” For its part, Europe thinks that with Joe Biden in the White House, it will be easier for the West to put up a collective front against Russia. With both sides keeping their blinders on, it’s no wonder dialogue keeps running into a wall.

Meanwhile, the Russian establishment opposition showed a notably united front this week, roundly denouncing Navalny. Perennial Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said that “Not one Communist will support these provocations.” But experts point out that while the top Communist leadership is toeing the line, that sentiment is not shared at the grassroots level. For instance, Nikolai Bondarenko, a Communist City Council deputy from Saratov, was arrested this week for participating in a pro-Navalny rally. Meanwhile, A Just Russia’s Sergei Mironov, who went after Navalny, calling him a populist and a nationalist in a recent article, ended up in hot water with his own party. Some members of A Just Russia even called to dismiss Mironov as the head of the party. This is due in part to the fact that both the Communist Party and A Just Russia has benefited from Navalny’s “smart voting” strategy, where voters are encouraged to support any candidate most likely to beat the United Russia contender. In fact, this strategy helped the Communists more than double their number of seats on the Moscow City Council. According to experts, both the Communists and A Just Russia face an existential threat, and are groping for ways to stay alive. Given an increasingly unforgiving Kremlin and rising civil activism among the Russian electorate (especially its younger voters), the establishment opposition old-timers are caught between a rock and a hard place. But perhaps personnel changes are inevitable if these parties are to remain viable.