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24th Jul 2021

Business as usual for EU and Russia, despite Navalny?

  • EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell (r) is to meet Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov (l) in Moscow in February (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

EU countries hinted new sanctions might come if Russia further harms opposition hero Alexei Navalny, but France and Germany want business as usual for now.

"The EU will follow closely the developments in this field and will continue to take this into account when shaping its policy towards Russia," the 27 member states said in a joint statement on Monday (18 January).

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  • Opposition leader Alexei Navalny named eight Russian regime financiers who merited EU sanctions (Photo: Person Behind the Scenes)

They spoke after Russian authorities arrested Navalny when he landed from Berlin in Moscow the night before and sentenced him to 30 days' detention for an alleged parole violation.

But the charges in question, as well as others, on embezzlement, could soon see him jailed for years, the way Russia locked up oil baron and would-be reformer Mikhail Khodorkovksy in 2005.

For their part, three EU foreign ministers - from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania - had lobbied for a stronger reaction.

"We should discuss ... possible introduction of further restrictive measures [on Russia]," they said in an open letter to EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell on Monday.

"We would suggest you [Borrell] to consider postponing your visit to Moscow that is scheduled for the beginning of February," they added.

The Czech Republic also said it would "propose a discussion on possible sanctions", when EU foreign ministers met next week.

And a diplomat from another central European country told EUobserver that Germany should consider halting its 'Nord Stream 2' gas pipeline with Russia.

"The Germans have to ask themselves if they want to continue business as usual with the Putin regime," the diplomat said, referring to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

But pipelines aside, French president Emmanuel Macron is also looking to forge a "new partnership" with Moscow.

And Berlin and Paris blocked proposals for a more explicit sanctions threat in Monday's joint EU statement, diplomatic sources told EUobserver.

Navalny's arrest came after Putin ordered his FSB spy-service to poison the activist with Novichok, a banned chemical weapon, last August, according to the EU.

Europe, at the time, blacklisted six Russians.

It has also blacklisted 177 Russians and 48 entities in recent years over Putin's war in east Ukraine.

But that conflict has continued, with more 2,100 ceasefire violations and 12 civilian casualties last month alone, according to international observers.

And for his part, Vladimir Ashurov, the London-based director of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, said on Monday the sanctions "weren't working ... because the West has refrained from sanctioning the people with the money".

"It's not enough to sanction the operatives who just follow orders", he said.

Ashurov named the eight people he and Navalny knew to be Putin's top bag-men.

The list included: oligarch Roman Abramovich; the son of the FSB chief, Denis Bortnikov; VTB Bank president Andrey Kostin; and health minister Mikhail Murashko.

The list also included: agriculture minister Dmitry Patrushev; former Putin aide Igor Shuvalov; Russian media personality Vladimir Solovyev; and oligarch Alisher Usmanov.

Meanwhile, Sunday's events prompted outcries by dozens of European politicians and NGOs.

Putin's EU friends

"[But] in the quiet corner are [Marine] Le Pen, [Matteo] Salvini, [Viktor] Orbán, [Thierry] Baudet, and [Geert] Wilders," Belgian liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt said, naming five far-right EU politicians.

"Putin's friends are no friends of freedom and democracy. Not in Russia, not in Europe," Verhofstadt said.

Navalny himself remained defiant on Monday.

"It seems that the grandpa in the bunker [Putin] is so afraid of everything that they demonstratively ripped apart the code of criminal procedure and threw it in the trash," he said, while calling on his supporters to hold street protests.

The Russian mission to the EU, which has lobbied for Borrell's visit to Moscow, declined to comment.

But Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who Borrell is to meet on 4 and 5 February, mocked Western concern by pointing to the storming of the US Capitol by a far-right mob on 6 January.

EU statements on Navalny were meant to "divert attention" from the US crisis, he said.

"We can see how they have jumped at yesterday's news about Navalny's return to Russia, and we can see how gladly the comments, which replicate one another, are being made," Lavrov said.

Russia has previously accused Germany of poisoning Navalny in a false-flag operation.

And 49 percent of Russians believed the propaganda line, while just 15 percent thought Russia did it, according to independent pollster Levada.

Navalny protests sharpen EU sanctions talks

Street violence in Russia redoubled calls for new sanctions when foreign ministers meet on Monday, after eight EU states earlier proposed asset-freezes and visa-bans.

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