EU debates response to Navalny arrest and mass protests in Russia

Alexei Navalny, Moscow, Russia
Police detain a protester supporting Alexei Navalny in Moscow, August 2020

European Union foreign ministers have debated their response to the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The discussion follows a weekend police crackdown that saw thousands of people taken into custody during protests across Russia in support of President Vladimir Putin’s most well-known critic.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said: “This wave of detention is something that worries us a lot, as well as the detention of Mr Navalny.”

He spoke as he arrived to chair the ministerial meeting in Brussels after more than 3,500 people were reportedly taken into custody in Russia during the nationwide protests.

German foreign minister Heiko Maas said that “under the Russian constitution, everyone in Russia has the right to express their opinion and to demonstrate”.

He added: “That must be possible. The principles of the rule of law must apply there, too – Russia has always committed itself to that.”

Mr Maas and other ministers called for the immediate release of the protesters.

Mr Navalny was arrested earlier this month when he returned to Moscow after spending months in Germany recovering from an attack in Russia which involved what experts have said was the nerve agent Novichok.

In October, the EU imposed sanctions on six Russian officials and a state research institute over Mr Navalny’s poisoning, but there is little appetite to take new measures immediately.

Mr Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, is also planning a trip to Moscow, and it is unclear what impact events will have on that visit.

On Sunday, French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian expressed concern about what he called Russia’s “authoritarian drift”.

He told France-Inter radio that “all light must be shed” on Mr Navalny’s poisoning, saying: “This was an assassination attempt.”

The protests attracted thousands of people in major Russian cities, including an estimated 15,000 in Moscow.

As events unfolded, the US embassy spokeswoman in the city, Rebecca Ross, said on Twitter that the United States “supports the right of all people to peaceful protest, freedom of expression. Steps being taken by Russian authorities are suppressing those rights”.

The embassy also tweeted a US state department statement calling for Mr Navalny’s release.

Mr Putin’s spokesman said the statements interfered in the country’s domestic affairs and were encouraging Russians to break the law.

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