17th Oct 2021

High noon for EU diplomats in Moscow on Sunday

  • EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell (c) in Moscow last Friday, when Russia expelled three European diplomats (Photo:

Some western diplomats will go to opposition rallies in Moscow on Sunday (14 February) despite the threat of new Russian expulsions.

Germany, Poland, and Sweden have said they had a right to observe the protests under a 1961 treaty that governed relations between civilised countries.

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  • Opposition figure Alexei Navalny faces several years in jail (Photo: Alexei Navalny)

"A diplomat's function pursuant to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations is to observe developments in the host country by lawful means," a German foreign ministry official told EUobserver on Friday.

"Regardless of pressure from Russian authorities, Polish diplomats will continue to perform their official duties in the Russian Federation," the Polish foreign ministry said.

"Observing demonstrations and monitoring political developments ... is a natural part of a diplomat's core duties," the Swedish foreign ministry also said.

They spoke out after Russia expelled three of their diplomats, last weekend, for going to "unlawful" protests on 23 January.

Jailed Russian dissident Alexei Navalny's supporters are holding fresh rallies to free him on 'Valentine's Day'.

The US, the UK, and Norway backed the EU in observing Sunday's events despite the previous expulsions.

It was "standard practice" for Western diplomats to attend foreign protests, a state department spokesperson told EUobserver on Thursday.

"We express solidarity with Germany, Poland, and Sweden and condemn the harassment and expulsion of the three European diplomats," she said.

"This arbitrary and unjustified act is Russia's latest departure from its international obligations," the state department added.

"We are crystal clear that observation of protests ... are a normal part of diplomatic activity," the UK foreign office said on Saturday.

Norway was even bolder.

"Norwegian diplomats in Russia will continue to observe public events ... the same way they have done before," Norwegian state secretary Audun Halvorsen told this website.

Austria and Finland also voiced the EU line.

"Austria has called for the immediate release of Alexei Navalny and for respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of assembly," Austria's foreign ministry said on Friday.

"Finnish diplomats act, as always, according to the Vienna Convention," Helsinki said.

France declined to comment.

Some other EU states also showed little interest.

"I'm in no position to know what our diplomats [in Moscow] will be doing this weekend, or any weekend for that matter, as it's beyond office hours," a Greek diplomat said.

EU lesson

But for its part, Russia indicated more EU expulsions could not be ruled out.

"If our [European] colleagues accredited in Russia have not learned their lesson, let them blame themselves," a spokesman for Russia's EU ambassador, Vladimir Chizhov, said.

Meanwhile, the EU foreign service told this website: "Observation of protests is compatible with the Vienna Convention."

The EU foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, is currently drafting new EU sanctions on Russia over its jailing of Navalny.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has warned him against going too far.

"If you want peace, prepare for war," Lavrov said on Russian YouTube channel Solovyov Live on Thursday.

But Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was less belligerent on Friday.

"Media outlets are giving this [Lavrov's] headline ... out of context," Peskov told Russian news agency Interfax.

"What's actually meant is we don't want [sanctions] ... we want to develop relations with the European Union", Peskov said.

Peskov's correction was because Russia had "painted itself into a corner" with last weekend's EU diplomatic expulsions, an EU source told EUobserver.

"They're panicking a bit and making mistakes," the source said, given Russia's economic dependence on Europe.

Moment of truth

But if the Kremlin was unsure how to handle the Valentine's Day stand-off, then so was the EU .

For all of Germany and Sweden's brave talk, just the Baltic states and the EU embassy in Moscow sent diplomats to observe a Navalny court hearing on Friday, another EU source said.

It remains to be seen who will challenge Russia by sending diplomats on Sunday.

Those kinds of decision were normally made by EU countries' ambassadors in Moscow, coordinating at local level.

But in a sign of the raw nerves, most EU states' embassies in Russia, when asked by EUobserver, referred questions back to national capitals.

It also remains to be seen what kind of sanctions Borrell will propose.

Navalny has urged EU and US asset-freezes on pro-Kremlin oligarchs.

But Borrell is expected to target minor Russian officials, amid French and German efforts to dial down Kremlin tension.

Moral obligation

And given the EU's low ambition, the least Borrell could do was send some of his diplomats to see what Russia's riot squads do to pro-Navalny demonstrators on Sunday, another Russian dissident said.

"Freedom of peaceful assembly is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed within the OSCE," Vladimir Kara-Murza told EUobserver on Friday, referring to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an intergovernmental body in Vienna.

Kara-Murza, like Navalny, narrowly survived being poisoned by the Russian regime.

"[OSCE] member states not only have a right, but an obligation to observe its implementation in practice," he said.

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