Thursday

4th Mar 2021

Borrell to meet Lavrov, while Navalny behind bars

  • EU top diplomat Josep Borrell (l) does not need a mandate from member states if he wants to meet foreign VIPs (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The EU's top diplomat Josep Borrell is going to Moscow in February, even though its opposition star, Alexei Navalny, will most likely be in prison at the time.

"This is a good moment to reach out and talk to Russian authorities," Borrell told press in Brussels after meeting EU foreign ministers on Monday (25 January).

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"I don't share the opinion that when things go bad, you don't talk. On the contrary," he said.

Borrell is to meet Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov at one of his official buildings on Spiridonovka Street in Moscow on 5 February, while Navalny is being held in the 'Matrosskaya Tishina' prison, just a few kilometres away.

"I will be very happy to see Mr. Navalny," if the Russians allowed it, Borrell said.

But "you don't do things this way," Borrell also said, when asked if he would make his trip conditional on meeting the prisoner of conscience.

Eight EU countries, including Denmark, Lithuania, Italy, the Netherlands, and Poland, had previously spoken of targeted EU sanctions over Navalny.

But Borrell also ruled those out for now.

"There's no fixed date, no schedule, for what the European Council will do [on sanctions]. It depends on what happens," he said.

"We have agreed today to wait [on sanctions] for the [Russian] court's decision, to wait to see ... whether Alexei Navalny is set free after 30 days," German foreign minister Heiko Maas also told press in Brussels the same day.

The EU has urged Russia to free Navalny and the 3,500 people it arrested at pro-Navalny protests last Saturday.

But the main point of the Moscow talks would be to discuss "strategic" issues, ahead of an EU leaders' debate on wider Russia relations in March, Borrell noted.

"Such a trip is long overdue," Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, also told EUobserver.

"Political dialogue" was "all the more required given the current political situation in Russia-EU relations and the obvious need to talk more with each other, rather than about each other," Chizhov said on Monday.

The Russian diplomat listed the Western Balkans, the Middle East, North Africa, Iran nuclear arms, and wars in the South Caucasus as the big issues.

But behind the scenes in Monday's EU talks, some foreign ministers voiced worries that Borrell's trip could turn into a fiasco, if Russia decided to engineer one.

If all Borrell got was a handshake with Lavrov, then a Russian court jailed Navalny for several years after the EU diplomat went home, "it wouldn't look good", an EU source said.

And even if Borrell met Navalny, it might make EU-Russia diplomacy look strange, a second EU source added.

"That would be a new Russian game ... letting Navalny out of his cage, so that Western politicians can get a good pic for Twitter," the source said.

Navalny was poisoned by Russian president Vladimir Putin's FSB spy service using a UN-banned chemical weapon last year, the EU has said.

He was then arrested on bogus charges when he returned from Berlin to Moscow, prompting the largest street protests in Russia for 10 years.

And Putin personally denied Navalny's latest corruption revelation - that he owned an opulent palace near the Black Sea - in a TV interview on Monday.

It "has never belonged to me or my close relatives," Putin said.

Change?

"The Kremlin is afraid that change is in the air. And Navalny, who almost died after being poisoned, symbolises the change that is expected by the people," Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told EUobserver the same day.

"We must react decisively to his [Navalny's] detention," Landsbergis said.

Some EU politicians have also urged Germany to stop building a new gas pipeline with Russia, called Nord stream 2, in response to events.

And Navalny has urged the West to freeze the assets of Putin's oligarch sponsors.

But for its part, the World Economic Forum (WEF), an elite Swiss think-tank, also invited Putin to address its so-called 'virtual Davos' event this week, adding to Europe's air of business-as-usual.

"The motto of the WEF is 'improving the state of the world'. Seems like legitimising Putin does just the opposite," Bill Browder, a British financier and human rights campaigner, who usually attends Davos meetings, said.

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.

Opinion

Here's what Borrell must say and do in Moscow

The Moscow visit of Borrell and efforts to test the ground for selective engagement seems ill-placed and timed. But the trip might at least have some value if approached wisely and turned into a clear manifestation of the EU's position.

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