Brussels / Moscow (dpa) – Russia is threatened by the EU with new punitive measures for its action against Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and his supporters.
At a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday, numerous participants were shocked by the capture of Navalny and the thousands of arrests during the weekend’s demonstrations in Russia, which also targeted Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin. EU Foreign Affairs Representative Josep Borrell said after the meeting that the Council of Foreign Ministers condemned the police brutality as “completely unacceptable”. The Council called on Russia to release Navalny and all those arrested.
Several Member States called for the first time to apply a new sanctioning tool in response to the events adopted last year in the case of human rights violations. Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas waited and commented on demands for sanctions – against the background that a Russian court has yet to decide whether a suspended sentence from Navalny will be commuted to real jail time in an earlier trial.
The trial is scheduled for February 2. “It will very much depend on how this court ruling turns out – whether Alexei Navalny is released after 30 days,” Maas said in Brussels.
Navalny allegedly violated reporting requirements while recovering from the assassination attempt in Germany. After returning on Sunday a week ago, the 44-year-old was arrested – initially 30 days after a controversial trial. However, he faces a slew of new criminal proceedings, including prison sentences.
Maas clearly demanded the release of Navalny and the arrested protesters. “Even under the Russian constitution, everyone in Russia has the right to express and demonstrate their opinion,” said the SPD politician. The country is committed to adhering to the rule of law. Therefore, it is expected that those who protested peacefully will be released immediately.
In contrast, the Russian president compared the organizers of the protests to “terrorists”. In view of the many injuries in the demonstrations and the more than 3,700 arrests, Putin said civilians and police must obey the law. He accused organizers of luring minors to participate in the protests. “This is how terrorists act and push women and children forward,” he said.
Nawalny’s team promptly called for new nationwide protests on Jan. 31 – for the release of the Kremlin’s opponent and against Putin. In Russia, demonstrations have not been allowed for months due to the corona pandemic – human rights activists therefore complain that the situation surrounding the coronavirus is being abused to quell the protest.
There are also repeated calls for a halt to the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, sanctioned by the US in particular, to hit the energetic superpower Russia. Despite Navalny’s imprisonment, the federal government is holding on to the line between Russia and Germany. “There is no direct link between the Navalny case and Nord Stream 2,” said government spokesman Steffen Seibert in Berlin. The attitude of the federal government to the project is unchanged.
Seibert on behalf of the German government condemned the “disproportionately harsh” approach taken by the Russian security forces in the demonstrations. “This action by the Russian security forces against peaceful protesters is unfortunately another example of the extremely problematic way of dealing with dissidents in the Russian Federation,” he said.
Due to the poison attack on Navalny with chemical warfare agent Novichok in August, the EU has already imposed sanctions on senior officials in Russia. Navalny sees an assassin squad from the FSB domestic intelligence agency behind the attack on Putin’s orders. The FSB and Putin reject the allegations. In Brussels, it is believed that government agencies in Russia are behind the attack.
Eastern Member States such as Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia are calling for a quick and clear response against Russia. A decision on new sanctions is expected next month at the earliest.
The new EU sanctioning tool makes it possible to freeze the assets of actors who commit or benefit from serious human rights violations. Entry bans can also be imposed. The tool could work against wealthy Putin supporters. Many of them have luxury properties and important business contacts in the EU and can be hit hard. Navalny has made a whole list of proposals for this.
Another major trigger for the protests in Russia was a new video in which Navalny attributes a billion dollar palace on the Black Sea to Putin. The Kremlin chief himself first responded to the allegations in an online conversation with students. “None of what is shown there if owned by me or my immediate family members – and never. Never. Putin said. The video got nearly 87 million views on YouTube after just a few days. Putin’s spokesman had previously described the film as “nonsense”.
Political scientist Tatiana Stanowaja said Putin’s commentary on Navalny’s film acknowledged that the “popular anger” was justified. However, the question arises whether the people believed Putin. Without an answer to who the palace belongs to, it is “ridiculous”.
According to the film, the building with the palace on the Black Sea is almost 40 times the size of Monaco and is said to have devoured more than 100 billion rubles (1.1 billion euros). According to Nawalny, the property is veiled. Everything would have been funded with bribes paid to oligarchs and Putin’s closest confidants in state-owned companies. The video shows drone footage and documents for the first time.