When people talk about red lines that should not be crossed and then do nothing, he says, “Putin understands that he has free rein.”
Volkov, who emigrated to Lithuania some time ago, spoke via video link (from Washington) on Wednesday with the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, which had recently been tricked by a fake Volkov. But this time no pink piggy banks and no bathrobe like his doppelganger, but a sobering analysis of the far-reaching repression against the political opposition in Russia.
Volkov outlines how afraid the Russian authorities are about the parliamentary elections in September. The political ‘managers’ of the system know all the tricks to fake elections, but the power United Russia party is so low in the polls that they decided to ‘wipe the political playing field completely clean’ this time by locking up opponents such as Navalny, or to force them to flee.
Navalny’s organization ceased operations earlier this spring to avoid further endangering members. But recently a top prosecutor brought a case to court in which the organization is labeled as ‘extremist’, just like violent jihadist organizations in the Caucasus. A judge in Moscow confirmed this on Wednesday evening.
Up to ten years in prison
‘All organizations with a different sound’, says Volkov, ‘work is made impossible. Along with another recent law, the extremism stamp means our members can face up to ten years in prison, all our activities are banned, all bank accounts are frozen. Even people who have been a small donor to our organization (which works on crowdfunding, red.) can be jailed for up to 8 years.’
Volkov underlines that he is nevertheless “not pessimistic” about the future. Putin’s regime wouldn’t take these steps if they weren’t very insecure. For eight years now, the average income of Russians has been declining, while the number of billionaires is rising. People are tired of the massive corruption. Navalny is more popular than Putin with people under thirty.’ The young generation wants change – but when it will come, says Volkov, no one knows.
The change has to come from Russia itself, Volkov tells the MPs. ‘A successful transition comes from within.’ What can the West do? Volkov’s request is actually quite simple – and Navalny herself has been saying it for years: go after the corrupt money Putin and his oligarchs are hiding here. ‘That is mainly in the United Kingdom, followed by the countries of the European Union. By finding out and freezing those hidden accounts – that’s how you get influence over Putin’, says Volkov.
It is evident that the West now lacks that influence, with its ‘deep concern’ and its sanctions against prison guards. The Europeans’ appeasement approach is not working, he says. “It only confirms Putin’s belief that his Western interlocutors are hypocrites. He understands that they should disapprove of the war in Ukraine and the use of chemical weapons on EU territory, but is convinced that they are too dependent on his oil and gas – and that he can do whatever he wants.”
Volkov also makes mincemeat of the EU strategy of ‘deterrence where necessary, cooperation where possible’ – a mantra of Dutch foreign policy for years, even after the downing of flight MH17. ‘Why keep making new agreements with a figure who has a long history of violating such agreements?’
Volkov believes that Russia is a European country and points out that the anti-European state propaganda has no effect on young people who have visited EU countries. ‘There is no unique Russian way. There is nothing inherently wrong with the Russian people that would prevent them from having institutions like Lithuania, for example.’ And Navalny? His situation is now stable, says Volkov. ‘He reads the memoirs of Vaclav Havel (the former Czech dissident, red.). He was once in a dramatic situation. But look what happened next.’