Friday

5th Mar 2021

Pro-Kremlin oligarchs to avoid EU sanctions, for now

  • Berlin: Germany, which is building a new pipeline with Russia, favours a soft approach (Photo: Amire Appel)

Pro-Kremlin oligarchs, including ones who directly benefitted from the recent jailing of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, will not face EU sanctions for now, diplomatic sources have said.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday (22 February) will instead agree to visa-bans and asset-freezes only on Russian officials involved in his incarceration.

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The EU foreign service aims to "fast-track" these, so that they can be in force in a few weeks' time, one EU source said.

Just one central European member state spoke of the need for listing oligarchs when contacted by EUobserver on Thursday.

But even the Russia-hawkish Baltic states were happy to go with the minimalist option for now.

"If we go after oligarchs, we need to make sure we have a sound legal basis, so that they are not overturned by a court challenge later down the line ... the situation [in Russia] is unlikely to improve, so we are studying this, and it [oligarch listings] could come in a second wave of sanctions in future," one EU source said.

On the other hand, Russia-friendly EU states, such as Austria, Cyprus, Greece, and Hungary, are not expected to block Monday's decision.

Few countries wanted to say much on the record ahead of Monday's talks.

"EU member states will discuss steps vis-à-vis Russia in view of the repression against peaceful protesters in Russia and the jailing of Mr. Navalny in violation of an ECHR ruling," the German foreign ministry said, referring to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

"We would only like to reiterate the fact Hungary joined the EU declaration issued ... on 3 February," the Hungarian foreign ministry said, referring to a statement condemning Navalny's mistreatment.

The muted EU reaction comes after Russia also humiliated EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell when he visited Moscow earlier this month by expelling European diplomats while he was there.

And Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has continued to attack the EU since his Borrell meeting.

Lavrov said on Monday, for instance, that EU relations were a "carcass".

Russian diplomats later said the Russian word he used - "каркас" - should have been translated as "framework", rather than its other meaning, that of a dead body.

But their clarification was still morbid.

"It may be a low level, deep freeze, aggravation but still not a corpse, at least not yet," a Russian diplomat said.

Meanwhile, the minimalist EU response is being led by Germany.

Germany believes the EU's new human rights sanctions regime, which is to be invoked in the Navalny case, only gives a legal mandate to go after direct abusers, not their financial sponsors or beneficiaries.

But Germany is also keen to maintain good relations with Russia in order to complete a new gas pipeline, called Nord Stream 2.

And other member states said Berlin's reading of the EU human rights sanctions was disingenuous.

Legal niceties

The preamble of the EU sanctions law, known informally as a 'Magnitsky Act' after a late Russian activist, speaks of listing people "providing support to or otherwise involved in serious human rights violations".

"I checked with our sanctions expert - so long as there's a link that's legally underpinned between oligarchs and human rights abuses, they can be listed," an EU diplomat said.

And for his part, Vladimir Ashurov, a close Navalny associate who lives in London, said there were at least eight big fish who fit the bill - Andrey Kostin, Igor Shuvalov, Alisher Usmanov, Oleg Deripaska, Alexei Miller, Igor Sechin, Gennady Timchenko, and Nikolay Tokarev.

They fit because Navalny's anti-corruption investigations had shamed all of them in the past, making them "direct beneficiaries" of his being silenced.

"There was an investigation [by Navalny] of him [Deripaska] entertaining a senior official in [Russian president Vladimir] Putin's administration on his yacht, with escort girls, discussing meddling in US elections. He [Deripaska] is a direct beneficiary of Navalny's persecution," Ashurov said, for instance.

"I'm puzzled why Germany would take such a narrow-minded approach. For sure, they [German authorities] keep score of many more crimes of the Russian business and political elite," Ashurov told EUobserver.

Two more of Navalny's associates - Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov - are likely to repeat that when they meet press at Lithuania's EU embassy in Brussels on Monday.

Meanwhile, the new US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, will join EU foreign ministers by videoconference the same day to discuss Russia, among other issues.

But if the US wanted a more hawkish approach on Navalny than Germany does, then US diplomats did not want to reveal that for now.

"The secretary [Blinken] is pleased to accept the [EU ministers'] invitation as an opportunity to demonstrate the US commitment to repair, revitalise, and raise the level of ambition in the US-EU relationship", a US spokesman said Thursday.

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