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Angela Merkel: Russia’s expulsion of diplomats over Navalny protests ‘unjustified’ | Russia

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Angela Merkel has condemned as “unjustified” Russia’s expulsion of European diplomats for participating in unauthorised demonstrations in support of the jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

“We consider these expulsions to be unjustified. We believe it is yet another aspect that can be observed right now of Russia being quite far from the rule of law,” the German chancellor said on Friday at an online press conference with France’s president, Emmanuel Macron.

Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said earlier that the decision by Moscow to declare the diplomats from Poland, Germany and Sweden personae non gratae would “not go unanswered”. Maas said the German diplomat concerned had been “solely fulfilling his duty … of informing himself about developments on the ground by lawful means”.

The British foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, described the expulsion as a “crude attempt” to distract from Russia’s targeting of opposition leaders, saying it was further evidence of Moscow “turning its back on international law”.

Meanwhile, Navalny appeared in a Moscow court for the second time this week, this time on a charge of defaming a second world war veteran. The Russian opposition leader, who earlier this week was ordered to serve two years and eight months in prison, criticised the latest hearing as a “disgusting PR trial” intended by the Kremlin to disparage him.

Last June Russia’s investigative committee launched an investigation into Navalny on charges of defamation, after the politician called people featured in a video promoting constitutional changes that allowed for an extension to Vladimir Putin’s rule “corrupt stooges”, “people without conscience” and “traitors”.

The authorities maintained that Navalny’s comments “denigrate [the] honour and dignity” of a war veteran featured in the video. If convicted, Navalny faces a fine or community service.

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Who is Alexei Navalny?

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Born in 1976 just outside Moscow, Alexei Navalny is a lawyer-turned-campaigner whose Anti-Corruption Foundation investigates the wealth of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. 

He started out as a Russian nationalist, but emerged as the main leader of Russia’s democratic opposition during the wave of protests that led up to the 2012 presidential election, and has since been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side. 

Navalny is barred from appearing on state television, but has used social media to his advantage. A 2017 documentary accusing the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, of corruption received more than 30m views on YouTube within two months. 

He has been repeatedly arrested and jailed. The European court of human rights ruled that Russia violated Navalny’s rights by holding him under house arrest in 2014. Election officials barred him from running for president in 2018 due to an embezzlement conviction that he claims was politically motivated. Navalny told the commission its decision would be a vote ‘not against me, but against 16,000 people who have nominated me; against 200,000 volunteers who have been canvassing for me’. 

There has also been a physical price to pay. In April 2017, he was attacked with green dye that nearly blinded him in one eye, and in July 2019 he was taken from jail to hospital with symptoms that one of his doctors said could indicate poisoning. In 2020, he was again hospitalised after a suspected poisoning, and taken to Germany for treatment. The German government later said toxicology results showed Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent.

Navalny was sent to prison again in February 2021, sentenced to two years and eight months, in a move that triggered marches in Moscow and the arrest of more than 1,000 protesters

Photograph: Pavel Golovkin/AP

“This trial was conceived as some kind of PR trial, because the Kremlin needs headlines, ‘Navalny slandered a veteran’,” the politician said in court on Friday.

Last month Navalny – an anti-corruption investigator and Putin’s most prominent critic – was arrested upon returning from Germany where he had spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities reject the accusations.

On Tuesday a Moscow court found Navalny had violated the probation terms of his suspended sentence from a 2014 money-laundering conviction, and ordered him to serve two years and eight months in prison.

The politician’s arrest and jailing triggered massive protests across Russia, as tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demand his release. Many protesters also chanted slogans against Putin, in the largest show of discontent in years. Thousands of protesters have been detained.

Russia struggles to accommodate detained protesters – video report
Russia struggles to accommodate detained protesters – video report

The EU’s top diplomat said on Friday that the bloc’s ties with Russia had reached a new low after the jailing of Navalny, but still raised hopes of cooperation. In Moscow for talks with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, repeated European calls for Navalny’s release and an investigation into his poisoning.

“Our relationship is indeed in a difficult moment,” Borrell told Lavrov, adding that EU-Russia ties were “under severe strain and the Navalny case is a low point”.

The west has fiercely condemned the decision to jail the 44-year-old, as well as the crackdown on pro-Navalny protesters. Borrell, however, said there were no immediate plans for new European sanctions, and he and Lavrov stressed that the two sides would continue to work together on issues including the coronavirus pandemic.

Borrell’s visit was the first to Russia by a senior EU envoy since 2017, following years of deteriorating relations prompted by Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Associated Press and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report

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