31st May 2023

Hungary holds up EU sanctions on jailers of Russian dissident

  • Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza was jailed for 25 years last month (Photo: Olaf Kosinsky)
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Hungary is blocking EU sanctions on the jailers of Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza, amid a wider dispute involving its Russian banking arm.

EU ambassadors had all but agreed on a list of Russian officials to blacklist for sending Kara-Murza to a penal colony for 25 years in April — a de facto death sentence for the disabled activist.

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The decision was to be finalised by EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday (22 May), diplomats said.

Human-rights campaigners see urgent international pressure as the only way to protect the Russian political prisoner.

But Hungary has come up with a last-minute veto over at least one of the Russian names on the EU list, amid a bigger row also involving the 11th round of Russia sanctions, military aid to Ukraine, and a Hungarian bank.

Kara-Murza's jailers are to be added to the EU's register of the world's worst human-rights offenders — joining a mixed bag of those who poisoned Russian dissident Alexei Navalny three years ago, Chinese tormentors of Uighur Muslims, and African warlords.

The 11th round of Russia sanctions is to curb sales of dual-use technology and blacklist 100 or so Russian officials and entities over the war in Ukraine, amid ongoing talks on final details.

The EU is also preparing to pay out €500m in reimbursements to Ukraine arms donors.

But Hungary is now blocking all three procedures in a "furious" protest that Ukraine designated its OTP Bank as a "sponsor of war" earlier this month, causing stigma for its international reputation, three EU diplomats told EUobserver.

OTP Bank's Russian branches give preferential loans to the Russian military and recognise Russia's annexation of Ukrainian regions in their paperwork, Kyiv says.

But Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó has vowed to stop the EU machinery unless Ukraine lets OTP Bank off the hook.

"We can't give it [the €500m EU reimbursement] a green light as long as OTP remains blacklisted," Szijjártó said in Budapest on Wednesday, according to Reuters.

"The same goes for sanctions as well," he also said.

The Hungarian foreign ministry did not reply to EUobserver on Friday when asked why it was blocking the Kara-Murza decision, even though it has no link to Ukraine or OTP Bank.

Hungarian opposition MPs are also in the dark about why prime minister Viktor Orbán felt so deeply moved by Ukraine's OTP Bank move.

And the bank itself has declared it did not ask for Hungarian government help.

The Russia-friendly Orbán has, in the past, also vetoed listing Russian VIPs, such as patriarch Kirill, and industrial champions, such as Rosatom.

And Orbán is locked in a long-running dispute over frozen EU funds being held back due to his abuse of the rule of law in Hungary.

"Orbán used to do [Russian president Vladimir] Putin's bidding subtly. Now it's shameless and out in the open," said Bill Browder, a British financier and human-rights campaigner, who is also a Kara-Murza family friend.

EU sanctions are currently decided by unanimity, creating the opportunity for individual EU leaders to hold the rest to ransom over national concerns.

The European Commission has also proposed a new sanctions regime to target the world's worst kleptocrats in future.

And this suggests adding names by a majority vote of EU states instead, in a commission gambit to lubricate the process.

"The EU needs to eliminate the ability for a rogue country to hijack moral policy for corrupt reasons," Browder told EUobserver.

"This dysfunction can't be allowed to continue," he said.

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