In Other News: Russian Authorities Sentence Navalny, US Continues to Back Venezuelan Opposition Leader & China’s Covid Diplomacy – February 4, 2021

February 4, 2021

Russian protests are continuing – albeit in smaller numbers – following the arrest and sentencing of Kremlin critic and opposition figure Alexey Navalny, who made his name in politics with videos exposing corruption among Russia’s political elites. Navalny was detained by Russian authorities on January 17 upon returning to Moscow from Germany, where he spent months convalescing after being poisoned with a nerve agent by Russian state security. He was sentenced this week to two years and eight months in a penal colony for embezzlement and will appear in court again tomorrow to face charges of defaming a veteran of World War II. The protests that broke out just after Navalny’s return were some of the largest seen in Russia in years and were met with beatings and mass detention of protesters. Russian security forces have also detained journalists – this week a news website editor who retweeted a reference to an anti-Kremlin protest on social media was given 25 days of jail time. The harsh crackdown may be effective in quelling visible unrest. Putin remains broadly popular across Russia, and since the fall of the Soviet Union, political activism among ordinary Russians has not managed to engender the kind of change that pushes the country in a more democratic (or just) direction. That said, escalating expressions of popular discontent are unpredictable, and there is no way to pinpoint the moment when momentum will convert a large-scale protest into a full-scale movement. Even if Russia is not yet at that point, activity on the ground suggests that despite Putin’s strong approval ratings, dissatisfaction with the ruling class is more widespread and runs deeper than the numbers might suggest. And these protests are a test not only for Russia’s domestic policy, but for U.S. foreign policy under President Biden. How the new administration addresses Russia in the wake of the Navalny sentencing and protests – as well as other instances of authoritarianism, human rights abuses, and crises of democracy around the world, such as this week’s coup in Myanmar – will be telling as to the U.S.’s overall foreign policy direction over the next four years.

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó received a boost of confidence from the United States this week, even as Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro remains in power. On Wednesday, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price noted that the Biden administration continues to recognize Guaidó as the legitimate interim leader of Venezuela and ruled out possible talks with Maduro. Guaidó declared himself the legitimate leader of Venezuela in 2019, and since then he has been recognized by more than 50 countries, including the U.S. and the EU. Last week, the EU issued a statement again condemning the Venezuelan government for fraudulent parliamentary elections held on December 6 and blamed Maduro for the ongoing political, economic, and humanitarian crisis in the country. While Guaidó has managed to retain international support, he remains an opposition figure in the country with no control over the Venezuelan government, military, or security forces. Further, his opposition coalition appears shaky, he lost his leadership position within the National Assembly, and average Venezuelans seem to have given up on protests as a way to oust Maduro. Still, supporting Guaidó serves to deprive Maduro of the international recognition and legitimacy he craves. The Biden administration is likely to use targeted sanctions to go after Maduro and his cronies for corruption, drug trafficking, and human rights abuses, and will work with the EU and Latin American partners on a multilateral approach to Venezuela. Whether the U.S. will lift existing oil sanctions on Venezuela, however, remains to be seen.

China has announced plans to donate coronavirus vaccines to Zimbabwe, Guinea, and Sierra Leone and help another 38 developing countries procure shots in the latest salvo in its Covid-19 assistance/vaccine diplomacy drive. The Zimbabwean and Guinean governments announced that China would donate 200,000 doses to each of their vaccination effort. The number allocated to Sierra Leone has not yet been announced, nor have plans for assistance to other developing countries. Widespread inoculation is critical to getting the virus under control, and programs to assist countries that have neither the capacity to develop their own nor the funds to pay market rates to procure them should be applauded. However, China has a history of turning foreign aid to its economic advantage. China has been the most important source of direct lending for a number of sub-Saharan African countries over the last 10+ years, but predatory lending practices – sometimes called “debt trap diplomacy” – have in some cases meant that governments are forced to use state-owned resources, such as oil, minerals, or port access as collateral for debt they could not otherwise service. This strategy has been employed not only in sub-Saharan Africa, but worldwide, with high-profile examples including China’s oil-for-loans deals with the cash-strapped governments of Ecuador and Venezuela. Expanding vaccinations in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere is to the benefit of both the countries receiving the shots and the broader international community, but recipient countries should be wary of the possibility that Beijing will expect favorable treatment in the future in exchange for its generosity.