Russia expels European diplomats as Navalny case sours relations

German, Swedish and Polish diplomats accused of attending anti-Putin protests

A protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in St Petersburg, Russia, on January 31st. Photograph: AP Photo/Valentin Egorshin

A protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in St Petersburg, Russia, on January 31st. Photograph: AP Photo/Valentin Egorshin

 

Russia has expelled three European diplomats for allegedly joining protests in support of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, as EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said his case marked “a low point” in the bloc’s relations with Moscow.

The move against the German, Swedish and Polish diplomats came as a Moscow court launched a new trial against Mr Navalny, and will fuel criticism of Mr Borrell’s decision to visit Russia for talks just days after it imprisoned its main opposition figure.

The EU and United States have condemned the jailing of Mr Navalny and his poisoning with a nerve agent in Siberia last year, but Mr Borrell made clear before flying to Moscow that the bloc was not ready to impose new sanctions on Russia.

“Certainly, our relations are under a severe strain, and the Navalny case is a low point in our relations,” Mr Borrell said as he met Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday.

“While we fully respect Russian sovereignty ... the EU considers issues related to the rule of law, human rights, civil society and political freedom are central to our common future.”

Mr Navalny was imprisoned for two years and eight months on Tuesday for allegedly breaking parole rules while recovering in Germany from the near-fatal poisoning, which he believes was ordered by Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Tens of thousands of Russians joined recent protests in support of Mr Navalny and against Mr Putin, the country’s leader of 20 years, and about 10,000 were arrested in an often-violent police crackdown.

Russia’s foreign ministry accused the Swedish and Polish diplomats of attending a rally in St Petersburg and the German diplomat of joining a march in Moscow: “The diplomats participating in illegal protests were declared ‘persona non grata’... [and]\ ordered to leave the territory of the Russian Federation in the near future.”

Earlier on Friday, Mr Lavrov again rejected western criticism of its treatment of Mr Navalny and said Russia now viewed the EU as “an unreliable partner”.

At the same time, both he and Mr Borrell said the EU and Moscow could co-operate in areas where their views and interests tallied, including in the possible provision of Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine if it received EU approval.

Mr Navalny was in court on Friday accused of slandering a second World War veteran who appeared in a pro-Kremlin video; he called the trial “a kind of PR stunt because the Kremlin needs the headlines: ‘Navalny slandered a veteran’.”

As his team announced that anti-Putin protests would resume in spring, Mr Navalny wrote on social media from prison: “The iron doors slammed shut behind me with a deafening clang, but I feel like a free person. Because I’m sure that I’m right. Because of your support ... Truth is on our side. Stay free.”