Navalny’s allies are under constant threat of prosecution by Russian authorities, Volkov said, and his opposition movement is expected to soon be declared illegal
OTTAWA — The top aide to imprisoned Russian dissident Alexei Navalny told Canadian MPs on Thursday that the best way to help Navalny is to put sanctions on oligarchs who are allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Leonid Volkov, speaking by video from Lithuania, began by telling the House of Commons foreign affairs committee about the suffering Navalny has gone through, including being poisoned and imprisoned due to his anti-Kremlin stance. (The Russian government denies involvement with the poisoning.)
Navalny’s allies are under constant threat of prosecution by Russian authorities, Volkov said, and his opposition movement is expected to soon be declared illegal by a Russian court.
When asked by Conservative MP Kerry Diotte what Canada can do to help Navalny, Volkov advised focusing on the almighty ruble.
“Putin really cares very much about money,” Volkov said, citing a recent investigation by his team into Putin’s luxury palace on the Black Sea. “So our short answer is to sanction his close friends, his oligarchs, the holders of his assets.”
In March, Canada joined the United States and the European Union in sanctioning nine senior Russian officials over Nalvany’s treatment, including Russia’s top prosecutor, the head of Russia’s prison system, and the head of the FSB, Russia’s main security agency.
But the sanctions did not target businessmen allied with Putin, and Volkov said going after such oligarchs would be the best way to exert pressure. However, he also acknowledged that it would be impossible to cut off Putin’s source of funds.
“The idea is to build leverage against Putin and his friends, because every time Europe or U.S. tries to build bridges, to compromise, to build a dialogue, unfortunately Putin, in his psychology considers it to be just a sign of weakness,” Volkov said.
“(Sanctions) would allow veteran leaders to talk to Putin from a much stronger position than they talk now, because money really matters a lot for him. That’s our idea. Appeasement politics, unfortunately, has failed.”
Liberal MP Rob Oliphant, parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs, sympathized with Volkov but also defended Canada’s approach to sanctions so far. Oliphant said Canada has to follow its own laws and work with allies such as the U.S. and U.K. when deciding who to sanction.
“I understand how complicated these processes are, how many legal complications,” Volkov said in response. But he said that when it comes to international partners, Canada should focus on getting the U.K. on board with more sanctions.
“Let me suggest that the key part of the story is the U.K. here,” Volkov said. “If you can kind of push and influence the U.K. informally, it’s the most essential because 80 per cent of those assets in question are being stashed in London.”
“I will just mention that the government is aware of that, and there are conversations,” Oliphant responded.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong listed off other names of Russian officials alleged to be complicit in poisoning or imprisoning other dissidents, and asked whether Volkov wants to see Canada impose sanctions on them as well.
Volkov agreed with Chong’s suggestions, but said such sanctions would be largely symbolic. He repeated that the best strategy would be to go after oligarch assets.
This was the foreign affairs committee’s second attempt to speak to Volkov, after a first attempt on April 22 was foiled by Russian pranksters who’ve pulled a similar stunt on politicians from other Western democracies.
Volkov told the committee that Navalny has now been imprisoned for 108 days and is currently recovering from a hunger strike.
“The requirement of his hunger strike was to get doctors of his choosing, trusted doctors, to mind him,” Volkov said. He said a compromise was eventually reached and Navalny has been getting better medical treatment now.
“He’s recovering from the hunger strike, but it takes time,” Volkov said. “The hunger strike lasted for 24 days, you need pretty much the same time for a safe recovery.”
The short term outlook for Navalny’s opposition movement looks rough, with a Moscow court expected to declare the movement illegal later this month and ban its followers from running in elections.
But Volkov said he still believes the longer term outlook is hopeful.
“There is a generational change,” he said. “In the federal level polls, Putin is still doing very good. But in polling for voters under 30, Navalny is doing better than Putin, even despite all the force of the propaganda machine … So the clock is ticking in our favour. It’s a slow, historical process, but it’s inevitable.”