Updated at 15:27,23-09-2020

The Guardian view on Russia and Belarus: the battle for democracy

The Guardian

The Guardian view on Russia and Belarus: the battle for democracy
Alexei Navalny’s ‘bravery in prosecuting his anti-corruption crusade over the last decade cannot be overstated’. Photograph: Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters
The apparent poisoning of the prominent Putin critic Alexei Navalny and the ongoing protests in Belarus have created diplomatic dilemmas for the west

For anyone needing a reminder, the high price of political opposition within Vladimir Putin’s sphere of influence has been all too apparent this week. The leader of the Belarusian democracy movement, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, remains in exile in Lithuania, as President Alexander Lukashenko keeps in close touch with Moscow on the phone and rounds up opponents in Minsk. Meanwhile, Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader and thorn in Mr Putin’s side, lies in a medically induced coma having almost certainly been poisoned, according to the German doctors treating him.

Mr Navalny was flown to Berlin at the request of his family, after falling ill on a flight from Siberia to Moscow last week. As the medical team at the Charité hospital gave its diagnosis, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, called for a full and transparent investigation by Russian authorities and demanded that those responsible be brought to justice. She will not be holding her breath. Last year, Ms Merkel directly confronted Mr Putin over the killing of another political opponent in Berlin. Two Russian diplomats were eventually expelled after Moscow refused to cooperate with the German investigation. The Russian state agents charged with the novichok poisoning of the former spy, Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury, are safely back in Russia and will almost certainly never face trial.

Mr Navalny’s bravery in prosecuting his anti-corruption crusade over the last decade cannot be overstated. He has been imprisoned on 13 occasions for organising anti-Putin protests, has endured physical attacks and was hospitalised after a mysterious “allergic attack” last year. The day before he collapsed last week, a group of young supporters reportedly asked him: “Why aren’t you dead yet?” Thankfully, although Mr Navalny’s long-term prognosis remains unclear, it seems likely he will survive this grim episode.

In Belarus, enormous levels of civic courage are also in evidence, as protests against Mr Lukashenko’s effective dictatorship continue into a third week after the rigged election of 9 August. On Sunday, for the second successive weekend, vast crowds turned out on the streets of Minsk, defying security forces who President Lukashenko had ordered to “solve the problem”. But the arrests yesterday of two opposition leaders suggest the regime intends to pick off prominent critics and tough things out until numbers drop and a crackdown can take place. Over the weekend, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, indicated the Kremlin’s backing for the president, claiming that Ms Tikhanovskaya’s movement was seeking to provoke “bloodshed” in Belarus.

The disregard for democracy and civil rights in Russia and Belarus is clear. What the west, and the European Union in particular, can do in response is more complex. The EU has refused to recognise the Belarusian election result and will impose sanctions on those involved in orchestrating electoral fraud and repression. It is understandably reluctant to go further, for fear of vindicating claims in Moscow and Minsk that the protests are a convenient vehicle for western interests. But in the event of more bloody repression, or a direct Russian intervention, more robust action may be unavoidable.

Relations with Mr Putin have been close to freezing since the Skripal poisoning, but Mr Navalny himself has called for better-targeted sanctions on figures close to Mr Putin with connections to the west. Ms Merkel’s backing of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany is also likely to come under renewed scrutiny in light of ongoing events.

These are not easy matters to assess when the wrong move could be damagingly counter-productive. Europe will need to continue to deal and engage with Russia. In Belarus, it may be that mediation by the neutral Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe becomes the appropriate avenue to lobby towards. But sitting on the sidelines as civil rights are trampled with impunity cannot be an option.