Wednesday

25th May 2022

Navalny protests sharpen EU sanctions talks

  • Protester holds up pro-Navalny placard in Moscow on Saturday (Photo: okras)

Street violence in Russia has redoubled calls for new EU sanctions when foreign ministers meet in Brussels on Monday (25 January), after eight EU states earlier proposed asset-freezes and visa-bans.

Protests urging president Vladimir Putin to free opposition hero Alexei Navalny rippled from Russia's far-east, across the country, to Moscow and St. Petersburg in the EU neighbourhood on Saturday, as riot squads lashed people with batons and dragged more than 3,500 of them into detention, including Navalny's wife, Yulia.

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  • St. Petersburg: Saturday's anti-regime protests were the biggest in 10 years (Photo: Rave)

Protesters mocked Putin by carrying toilet brushes after Navalny recently revealed the "tsar" had bought himself Italian ones costing €650 each for his private mansion, in a documentary on YouTube seen more than 81m times.

People also ridiculed Putin's police by pelting them with snowballs, while passers-by honked car horns and waved from trams in support.

The protests were the biggest challenge to Putin's authority in 10 years.

They came after six months of anti-regime demonstrations in neighbouring Belarus.

And Navalny linked the movements by calling for the Russia demonstrations to be held on Saturday, so that Belarus protesters, who always went out on Sundays, could keep up momentum, Natalia Kaliada, a Belarusian émigré living in London, told EUobserver.

"Navalny has said, several times, that the Belarusians are an example for Russians," she said, ahead of some 100 police arrests in Minsk on Sunday.

"The Kremlin is clearly worried," Eerik-Niiles Kross, an Estonian MP and Russia expert, told this website.

"Control is slipping, Mr. Putin," Lithuania's foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, tweeted on Saturday.

"The only way to do this [avoid conflict] without rifles, cannons, and bombs is via sanctions," Polish president Andrzej Duda also told the Financial Times newspaper on Sunday.

For his part, EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell said: "I deplore the widespread detentions, disproportionate use of force, cutting down internet, and phone connections [in Russia]".

He promised EU foreign ministers would discuss the events when they met in Brussels on Monday.

He spoke after eight EU countries, last week, called for Europe to invoke its 'Magnitsky Act' - new human-rights sanctions named after a Russian regime victim - in reaction to Navalny's arrest.

The group included the usual Russia-hawks, the Baltic states and Poland, EU sources said.

It also included Belgium, Denmark, Italy, and the Netherlands, making it harder to ignore.

But even as Lithuania and Poland sharpened talons, France and Germany, the EU's two principal powers, were taking a more dovish line.

EU capitals had expected Saturday's free-Navalny protests to hit record heights.

But German chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday that Navalny's arrest had not changed her mind about completing a new gas pipeline with Russia, called Nord Stream 2.

"My basic attitude has not yet changed in such a way that I would say that the project shouldn't happen," she said.

"I find this [Russia's] slide towards authoritarianism very worrying," French foreign minister Jean Yves Le Drian said on Saturday.

But it was still "necessary" to pursue France's special "dialogue" with Russia, which French president Emmanuel Macron launched a year ago, Le Drian said.

Borrell's agenda

The EU's top diplomat, Borrell, was equally keen to talk with Russia.

"The whole of Russia-EU relations cannot be reduced to the situation of Mr. Navalny ... we have other dimensions in our relations with Russia that we need to address," Borrell told MEPs last week, as he prepared to meet Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on 4 February.

Borrell might have "deplored" Russia's crackdown on Saturday, but he planned to skip through Navalny's case in just a few minutes on Monday, according to his draft agenda.

"There will be plus-or-minus 10 topics under 'current affairs', including Navalny, and just 90 minutes for all of this," an EU diplomat said, referring to Monday's foreign-minister meeting.

Other concerns included Egypt, Hong Kong, Turkey, Venezuela, the Horn of Africa, and the Persian Gulf.

"I, personally, wouldn't expect too deep a discussion [on Russia], probably threatening with sanctions if Russia doesn't release Navalny will be the outcome," the EU diplomat said.

EU autonomy?

Borrell "didn't want to spoil the atmosphere ahead of his [Moscow] trip," an EU source noted.

And as things stood, the EU top diplomat's Russia visit would come before Borrell had first met the new US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, to coordinate policy, the source said.

Borrell's outreach came amid EU talk of "strategic autonomy" from the US.

The EU, one month ago, also signed an investment deal with China, in a sign of its geopolitical aspirations.

But for its part, the Kremlin lumped Europe together with America in its rebukes of "Western" intervention, using Cold War-type rhetoric, which recalled the world's old dividing lines.

Support for Navalny was "interference in our domestic affairs", Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Sunday.

And the EU and US reactions were due to "a very deep crisis of that very Western way of thinking, of Western pseudo-democracy and pseudo-liberalism", Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.

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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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The risk of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny dying in prison, as well as Russian aggression in Ukraine and in EU states, is to dominate foreign ministers' talks on Monday.

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