The Kremlin continues to defend its decision to expel diplomats from several European countries last week after accusing them of participating in rallies to support jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny amid rising tensions between the European Union and Moscow.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry announced on February 5 that diplomats from Sweden, Poland, and Germany had been declared personae non gratae for allegedly participating in a protest to support the Kremlin critic on January 23. The Swedish, Polish, and German governments have denied that their diplomats participated in the demonstration.
The announcement came during a tense visit by Josep Borrell to Moscow, where the EU’s top diplomat had an intense day of meetings with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, who called the EU an “unreliable partner.”
“The Russian side has shown clearly that it isn’t going to tolerate anything like this,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on February 8.
For his part, Borrell wrote in his blog on February 7 — a day after returning from Moscow — that an “aggressively-staged press conference and the expulsion of three EU diplomats during my visit indicate that the Russian authorities did not want to seize this opportunity to have a more constructive dialogue with the EU.”
Peskov declined to comment on Borrell’s statement, saying that he does not “presume to judge what could have influenced such an assessment.”
On February 2, Navalny was found guilty of violating the terms of a suspended sentence he received in connection with an embezzlement case that he has called politically motivated. The court converted the sentence to 3 1/2 years in prison. Given credit for time already spent in detention, the court said the Kremlin critic would have to serve 2 years and 8 months behind bars.
Navalny, 44, was arrested on January 17 after returning to Russia from Germany where he was treated for a nerve-agent poisoning that he says was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, which the Kremlin has denied.
More than 1,400 people were detained by police in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other Russian cities after the court ruling on February 2. More than 10,000 were rounded up by police during nationwide protests in more than 100 Russian towns and cities on January 23 and January 31.
Rattled by some of the biggest anti-government protests in years, Moscow has accused the West of hysteria and double standards over Navalny and has accused the United States and others of meddling in Russia’s internal affairs.
In addition to the Navalny case, relations between Moscow and the EU have been sorely strained by Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea and its support for separatist formations waging a war against Kyiv in parts of eastern Ukraine, the EU’s rejection of a disputed presidential election in Belarus and its criticism of a brutal crackdown by the government of strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and other issues.