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8th May 2021

Can EU keep Navalny safe as he 'defies' Putin?

  • Alexei Navalny was poisoned with Novichok by the FSB, the EU says (Photo: Michał Siergiejevicz)

EU diplomacy might help keep Russian opposition hero Alexei Navalny safe when he "defies" Russian president Vladimir Putin by going home this weekend.

"I think it's unlikely he [Navalny] would be arrested at the airport, but I wouldn't be surprised if he was," Vladimir Ashurkov, a Russian émigré living in London who is a close associate of Navalny's, told EUobserver on Thursday (14 January).

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  • Vladimir Ashurkov is a Russian émigré living in London (Photo: Vladimir Ashurkov)

Russia has already prepared two warrants for Navalny's arrest on bogus charges - parole violation and embezzlement, Ashurkov said.

"If they tried before, there's nothing to stop them from doing it in the future," Ashurkov also said on the risk to Navalny's life, after Putin's spy service, the FSB, poisoned Navalny last year.

The Russian leader wanted Navalny to stay in exile, and his return, on a Pobeda Airlines flight from Berlin to Moscow on Sunday, represented "a challenge for Putin and his circle", Ashurkov said.

"It's an act of defiance against the risk of arrest or new assassination," Ashurkov said.

The next presidential elections were years away, but, in any case, Navalny was going back for moral rather than political reasons, Ashurkov added.

"It's about principles ... It's about the entire nature of Navalny's strategy and character. People who know Navalny expected that this would happen," Ashurkov, who is executive director of Navalny's Moscow-based Anti-Corruption Foundation, told EUobserver.

Navalny's home-coming will put him back in the spotlight after he survived being poisoned on 20 August 2020 with Novichok, a UN-prohibited, military-grade chemical weapon.

And it comes amid deliberations on whether EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell might follow in his tracks by meeting Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow in early February.

"The HRVP [high-representative for foreign affairs] has been invited by foreign minister Lavrov and has said that he is ready to visit Russia, when appropriate," Borrell's spokesman told this website on Wednesday, when asked about the potential visit.

"We will closely watch what happens after Mr Navalny's announced return to Russia on 17 January and expect the Russian authorities to observe their duty to respect and protect his rights," the EU spokesman also said.

Borrell's trip, if it goes ahead, would be the first of its kind since former EU top diplomat Federica Mogherini met Lavrov in Moscow in 2017.

EU-Russia ties are moribund due to economic sanctions over Russia's war in Ukraine.

The Navalny case stigmatised Russia even more, including by new targeted EU sanctions against Putin's spy-chief, FSB director Aleksandr Bortnikov.

But EU leaders are keen to revisit Russia relations at an upcoming summit in Brussels on 25 March, according to plans pencilled in at the EU Council in Brussels.

And Borrell was interested in exploring "selective engagement" with Moscow, as well as setting out red lines, his spokesman said.

"The full implementation of the 'Minsk agreements' remains a key condition for any substantial change in EU-Russia relations," Borrell's spokesman said, referring to a Russia-Ukraine ceasefire-accord.

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell (r) with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov at a multilateral meeting in Slovakia in 2019 (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Navalny's fate

"The EU has repeatedly called on Russia to investigate this unacceptable crime [the Novichok attack on Navalny], which we see as a case of proliferation of chemical weapons, contrary to international law," the EU spokesman also said.

And whether Borrell's trip goes ahead or not, having the EU "closely watch" what happens to Navalny "might help" keep him safe, Ashurkov, Navalny's associate, told this website.

"It [EU attention] couldn't hurt ... but nobody has a crystal ball on the calculations in the Kremlin," Ashurkov said.

When asked by EUobserver what Borrell ought to say to Lavrov if they met, Ashurkov, a 48-year old former banker, replied: "Borrell has decades of international diplomatic experience. It would be naive for me, a Russian political activist, to advise him. There are so many considerations".

For its part, Russia denies it is at war in Ukraine or that it poisoned Navalny.

Meanwhile, its EU ambassador, Vladimir Chizhov, has been lobbying for a Borrell-Lavrov meeting, EU diplomatic sources said.

The EU's ambassador in Russia, Markus Ederer, said, last August, that a high-level visit of that type was not being planned due to the coronavirus situation.

But Chizhov's spokesman told EUobserver that that was no longer a problem.

"Though anti-Covid measures are still in place, I think, from a technical point of view, the general answer is: 'Yes'. At least, such a conclusion may be drawn from the fact that today the Saudi foreign minister is in Moscow for a working visit," the Russian spokesman said on Wednesday.

"There is always an opportunity for a rapprochement," he added.

Borrell's spokesman noted that last year's Navalny chemical-weapons attack had had a "negative impact on our relations".

But when asked how Navalny's fate might influence EU-Russia ties in future, Chizhov's spokesman said: "Sorry, we don't speculate".

Former EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini with Lavrov and Russian EU ambassador, Vladimir Chizhov (on the right hand side, in the foreground) in Moscow in 2017 (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

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