EU’s Top Diplomat Demands Navalny Release in Tense Moscow Talks
(Bloomberg) -- The European Union’s foreign policy chief repeated demands for the release of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny at talks in Moscow overshadowed by President Vladimir Putin’s sweeping crackdown on dissent.
“It has been an intense discussion,” Josep Borrell told reporters at a news conference alongside Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday after the first visit by a top EU official since 2017. “My visit coincides with the arrest and sentencing of Alexey Navalny and the arrest of thousands of demonstrators. As you can expect, I have conveyed to Minister Lavrov our deep concern and reiterated our appeal to his release.”
Still, Borrell made clear the EU has no plan now to impose more sanctions on Russia. The two sides stressed the need to cooperate despite what Borrell called a recent history “marked by fundamental differences and by lack of trust.”
Lavrov defended Russia’s actions against opposition protesters, pointing to police abuses in the U.S. and Europe and accusing the West of “double standards.” Russia and the EU didn’t hide their differences at the talks, while agreeing they should cooperate where possible, he said.
“We build our life based on the fact that the European Union is an unreliable partner, at least at this stage,” Lavrov told reporters. “I hope that today’s talks will help find a more constructive trajectory. We are ready for this.”
The meeting took place after a Moscow court jailed Navalny for 2 years and 8 months on Tuesday for breaching probation terms while he was recovering in Germany from a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning that he and Western nations blamed on Russia’s Federal Security Service, known as the FSB.
Lavrov on Wednesday dismissed criticism from Western leaders over the Navalny case as “unseemly rhetoric,” and said he’d sent Borrell a video contrasting police actions against protesters in the West and in Russia. Borrell said Friday he hadn’t watched it.
The imprisonment of Navalny and detention of thousands of protesters added to tensions following years of EU sanctions in response to Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. Relations dived further after the 2018 poisoning in the U.K. of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal.
The EU sanctioned six senior Russian officials including FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov and Kremlin deputy chief of staff Sergei Kiriyenko in October in response to the poisoning of Navalny, Putin’s most prominent critic. The Kremlin denies involvement.
About 11,000 opposition supporters have been detained at protests in Moscow and cities nationwide since Jan. 23, according to the OVD-Info monitoring group. Social media in Russia has filled with videos showing riot police beating protesters and detainees being held in overcrowded cells.
Putin has no plans to meet Borrell, though Russia attaches “great importance” to the visit and regrets the current state of EU relations, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Thursday.
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