Sympathy for the devil – The Kremlin’s criticism of Alexi Navalny is making him more popular | Europe

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Why Navalny’s team sees Kremlin’s hands in attack

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Mr Navalny was eventually airlifted to Berlin’s Charité clinic after initial treatment in Omsk in Siberia

Joining Team Navalny is asking for trouble.

Like the opposition politician himself, activists linked to Alexei Navalny have been jailed, handed crippling fines, attacked and sent death threats.

So as the Kremlin’s biggest critic lies in an induced coma in Berlin, with doctors trying to identify the substance they believe poisoned him a week ago, Mr Navalny’s friends and allies have no doubt that he was targeted for his political activity.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman says German medics have “rushed” to their conclusion of foul play with no proof – and the Kremlin has always refused even to utter Mr Navalny’s name in an attempt to diminish his significance.

But over the last couple of years his network of young activists across Russia have faced intense and increasing pressure that tells a different story.

Surveillance in Siberia

Sergei Boiko drank tea with Alexei Navalny two days before he collapsed on his flight home from Siberia.

They met in Novosibirsk, where Mr Boiko is one of 33 people challenging pro-Kremlin candidates at next month’s local elections.

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Sergei Boiko

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Mr Navalny was with Sergei Boiko in Novosibirsk two days before he collapsed on a flight back home

It’s part of a “smart voting” strategy that proved surprisingly successful at Moscow city elections last summer: Team Navalny identifies candidates most likely to beat Mr Putin’s United Russia and campaigns hard for them.

That plan – or perhaps Mr Navalny himself – apparently bothers someone powerful.

“There were people following us; many resources invested,” Mr Boiko tells me.

Whilst Alexei Navalny was in town, he says each of their cars was followed constantly. When the team moved about on foot, each person had their own, dedicated tail.

“It was from the start of the day to the end,” Mr Boiko says. “I think it was [the] secret service.”

The Kremlin spokesman claims such “operations” are not co-ordinated with the presidential administration. When I asked what danger the opposition politician presented to merit such tight surveillance, Dmitry Peskov retorted: “No danger at all.”

Making life difficult

But his allies are harassed on a regular basis.

“As soon as I got involved, I realised how it would be,” says Vitaly Kolesnikov, recalling how days into his job as camera and video editor on Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption investigations, his new boss was attacked with a green dye that burned his eye.

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Media captionFootage appears to show Mr Navalny being attacked with a green liquid in 2017

“Since then, I’ve been interrogated, threatened, had money stolen,” Mr Kolesnikov says. “It’s been quite a journey.”

Last year, police searched the editor’s home and confiscated over two million roubles ($26,500; £20,000) in cash he had from selling his flat. It was part of a criminal investigation into Mr Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation in which dozens of other activists had their bank accounts frozen.

Sergei Boiko, in Siberia, has faced two police searches in as many years and spent 74 days in custody, mainly for breaking Russia’s strict laws on protests.

“They are trying to make your life as hard as they possibly can,” Vitaly Kolesnikov says.

He mentions getting death threats almost in passing.

Who do they blame?

On Monday, another of Alexei Navalny’s friends published a YouTube video blaming President Vladimir Putin directly for his condition.

Speaking straight to camera, a trend set by Mr Navalny himself, Ilya Yashin argued that the politician had not only uncovered high-level corruption and corralled multiple mass protests, his “smart voting” system openly challenges Mr Putin’s allies for power.

“Why do these tragedies only happen to critics of the president?” Mr Yashin demanded to know.

Vladimir Putin’s spokesman dismissed the statement as “empty noise”.

Pro-Kremlin press, meanwhile, have been on the counter-offensive.

From suggesting that “the blogger” Navalny poisoned himself with drink and pills, they then cast doubt on whether there was any toxin at all. Finally, they’ve cited claims that the whole thing is a dastardly Western plot against Russia.

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Alexei Navalny has made enemies by openly targeting corruption as well as allies of the president

Elsewhere, one analyst fears this could be the work of radical, freelance “protectors” of Russia – sidestepping the Kremlin to deal with a security threat.

Others speculate that he could be the victim of a revenge attack for one of his muck-raking investigations: the team still haven’t revealed what he was filming in Novosibirsk.

But many suspect even that would need a nod, at least, from the very top.

“No-one could make such a decision besides the Kremlin,” Sergei Boiko argues.

Why now?

In Novosibirsk, the activist has a table set up against a turquoise wall where he records his alternative newscasts for YouTube, just like Alexei Navalny.

He’s captured the look with the same, smartly buttoned shirt and even similar intonation.

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Sergei Boiko

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Above the hashtag “Alexei, live!”, Sergei Boiko adopts the pro-president slogan: “If not Putin, then who?”

The office Sergei Boiko heads is one of dozens of regional headquarters Alexei Navalny opened in 2017 ahead of his failed bid to run for president. They now generate their own investigations into local corruption.

Sergei Boiko thinks that new, national reach could have prompted an attack, especially with mass protests in the Russian far east and the country’s so-called near-abroad.

“Alexei is a problem for the authorities, but now we have Khabarovsk, we have Belarus and we have elections with a not-good position for United Russia,” he argues.

“So many problems at one time. So they could decide it’s easier to do such a thing.”

If not us, who?

Alexei Navalny’s team always knew he was in danger.

“You realise anything can happen, but you always hope they wouldn’t go this far,” Vitaly Kolesnikov explains. “Of course I was shocked and very worried.”

But he hasn’t contemplated quitting Team Navalny.

Vitaly Kolesnikov

Vitaly Kolesnikov

That’s what they’re trying to accomplish. They’re trying to scare you, they want you to leave. But I believe in what I do

Sergei Boiko agrees. In three weeks’ time, he’ll be standing for a seat in the Novosibirsk parliament.

“We’re going to the elections, we’re still working for change,” he insists. “In Russia we say, if not us – then who?”

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When Kremlin’s foxes in blue helmets want to guard the henhouse

Long-time Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov (pictured) expressed the necessity to raise the capabilities of CSTO peacekeepers so that they could become a part of the United Nations Peacekeeping, writes Zintis Znotiņš.

The CSTO was established shortly after the collapse of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact in order to maintain a counterforce to NATO.

The CSTO currently consists of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, i.e. all of the former Soviet republics that have remained in Russia’s sphere of interests or for some reason are essentially dependent on Russia. There are no doubts that all the CSTO member states share the same ideological platform. So, what are the military formations of the CSTO that Lavrov so eagerly wants to engage in UN peacekeeping missions?

Russia: 98th Airborne Division (Ivanovo), 31st Air Assault Brigade (Ulyanovsk); Kazakhstan: 37th Air Assault Brigade, a naval infantry battalion; Belarus: 1st Spetsnaz Brigade; and one battalion each from Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. There are plans to supplement the CSTO with units of the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations and the Ministry of Interior’s special purpose units. Such units are also provided by Belarus and Kyrgyzstan. The CSTO also has a Russian aviation unit deployed in Kyrgyzstan.

Fine, but what are the duties of the peacekeepers? They protect civilians, actively prevent conflicts, fight violence, further safety and authorize state institutions to take up these duties.

Wait, either Lavrov has a peculiar sense of humor, or I am not getting something. The CSTO mostly consists of cutthroats – soldiers or police officers who were trained for the sole purpose of killing someone quickly, but now they are made into peacekeepers. You could also announce that lions and crocodiles will now switch to eating grass or that a serial killer has been appointed a surgeon in some hospital.

CSTO’s military forces cannot fulfill the duties of peacekeepers for the simple reason that they were not trained to do so. They were trained for a completely different purpose.

It is evident that Russian forces are the dominant ones in the CSTO. To such an extent that the CSTO is basically an organization established by Russia to serve its interests.

Let’s just look at some of the missions Russia has sent its troops to. Just a couple of cases.

Transnistria: the conflict began in 1990 in Soviet Moldavia, when the Russian-speaking minority of the Transnistria region separated and unilaterally announced independence.

South Ossetia: when Georgia regained independence in 1991, it – led by Zviad Gamsakhurdia – attempted to regain control of its autonomous territories. In South Ossetia this turned into a 1.5 year war with roughly 1,000 casualties. The conflict escalated in 2008.

Both these conflicts erupted because Russia wanted to prevent the establishment of sovereign nations, i.e. these countries wanted to leave Russia’s sphere of influence.

This is quite the peculiar situation, if you look at it. Russia was the reason for these conflicts to emerge, but then it also sent its peacekeeping forces to the same conflict areas.

Russia also wanted its peacekeepers to be sent to conflict areas in Ukraine. In Russia’s highly-developed hybrid warfare, these so-called “peacekeepers” are one of the methods of achieving its interests in Ukraine without launching a conventional attack.

As we can see, this is an old Russian tactic – to create a conflict and then send its peacekeeping forces to the conflict. It should be noted that the USSR was not ashamed of employing the same approach. The Soviet Union sparked unrest and then sent its troops as the “liberators” to protect the working people. Everything new is just well-forgotten old, right?

It is most likely that Russia itself is completely aware that its “peacekeeping” operations don’t look so good from the outside, so it is looking for ways of covering this up. The CSTO is not a complete solution, because no one in the world considers the organization to be anything serious. The next thing to try is to “get under someone else’s roof” – why don’t we just go all-in and attempt to become a part of UN Peacekeeping?

An interesting question comes to mind – are these attempts to become “peacekeepers” linked with the conflicts already caused by Russia, or with conflicts that are only yet to be brought upon us?

I believe the UN should clearly state that countries who engage in aggression against other countries cannot participate in peacekeeping operations, because otherwise we would be in a situation where we decide to send a fox to guard our henhouse.

The views expressed in the above article are those of the author alone and do not represent any EU Reporter stance.

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