Russia and Western nations continued to clash Friday over the fate of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny, with Russia’s Foreign Ministry announcing the expulsion of three European diplomats over alleged support for the Kremlin critic even as the top EU diplomat was in Moscow for talks.
The moves came as Russian authorities continued to ramp up pressure on Navalny — trying him again in a Moscow court Friday just days after he was sentenced to nearly three years in prison on a parole violation, which prompted protests at home and outrage abroad.
The U.S. has joined European allies in calling for Navalny’s release and criticizing the detention of thousands of demonstrators, prompting Kremlin accusations of Western interference in Russia’s internal affairs.
Diplomats be gone
Russia’s Foreign Ministry confirmed Friday that it had expelled representatives of Germany, Sweden and Poland over what it said were participation in “illegal rallies” January 23.
At the time, tens of thousands of Russians had taken to the streets to protest the detention of Navalny as he returned home to Russia after nearly five months in Germany recuperating from a near fatal poisoning attack.
“It was underscored that such actions from their side are unacceptable and do not accord with their diplomatic status,” said the Foreign Ministry in a statement explaining the expulsions. “They have been ordered to leave the Russian Federation as soon as possible.”
The announcement seemed timed to reflect maximum umbrage.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, had just completed talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow, in which he pressed for Navalny’s release.
“I have conveyed to Minister Lavrov our deep concern and our appeal for his [Navalny’s] release and for the launch of an investigation over his poisoning,” said Borrell in a press conference alongside Lavrov.
Lavrov brushed aside the criticism and accused the EU of following Washington’s lead on the Navalny issue.
Indeed, the U.S. has also been highly critical of Navalny’s imprisonment. U.S. President Joe Biden has called the decision “politically motivated” and among issues for which the U.S. would not hesitate to “raise the cost on Russia,” he said during a foreign policy speech this week.
Reacting to Biden’s comments, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Friday that Russia found the U.S. president’s position “very aggressive and unconstructive rhetoric, to our regret.”
The governments of Germany, Sweden and Poland all denied their representative had attended the rallies and said they were weighing appropriate responses.
On Friday, Navalny was back in a Moscow court, this time accused of slandering a World War II veteran who took part in a state-media promotional video backing constitutional reforms last summer.
The changes — since adopted in a controversial July referendum — allow longtime President Vladimir Putin to remain in office should he choose to stand for reelection following the end of his current term in 2024.
At the time, Navalny described those who participated in the video as "a disgrace to the country” and “traitors.”
In doing so, prosecutors argued that Navalny slandered 95-year-old Ignat Artemenko, a veteran of the Soviet war effort who had taken part in the get-out-the-vote campaign and allegedly suffered heart problems upon learning of Navalny’s tweet.
Speaking before the judge, Navalny denied the charges, calling them part of a coordinated government effort to discredit him in the eyes of the public.
“This case in general was intended as a kind of PR process because the Kremlin needs the headlines: ‘Navalny slandered a veteran,’” he told the court.
The hearing faced several delays after Artemenko required medical attention and struggled to follow the proceedings via videolink.
“I find it really disgusting and unbearable,” Navalny said. “You’ve been using him as a puppet. … You’re making a mockery of a 95-year-old man.”
According to Navalny’s lawyers, a conviction could result in additional fines and penalties rather than prison.
Indeed, the hearing seemed primarily intended to show Navalny on the wrong side of Russians’ near-sacred reverence for the Soviet effort to defeat Nazi Germany.
State television, which routinely ignored Navalny until his recent parole sentencing, covered the hearing heavily.
The judge adjourned the hearings until February 12.
Navalny was sentenced last Tuesday for past parole violations, sparking international outrage and protests inside Russia.
The court found Navalny violated his parole from a 2014 suspended sentence by failing to notify prison authorities of his whereabouts when he was evacuated to Berlin for treatment following a near-fatal poisoning attack.
During his nearly 5-month recuperation in Germany, European medical experts determined the opposition politician had been poisoned by a strain of Novichok, a military grade nerve agent first produced in the Soviet Union.
He was arrested as soon as he arrived by plane back in Moscow last month, triggering nationwide protests that have led to the arrest of about 11,000 people, according to rights groups.
Navalny insists Russia’s security services carried out the attack on Putin’s orders and has published an investigation that claims to have identified officers involved in the poisoning.
Putin has denied any involvement, and Russian authorities have refused to investigate, citing a lack of evidence any crime was committed on Russian soil.
Instead, authorities have launched new criminal inquiries into Navalny in addition to the parole violation conviction, suggesting Navalny’s legal troubles are far from over.
A message from jail
Before Friday’s defamation hearing, Navalny issued a message to supporters from jail on his social media account.
“The iron doors slam shut behind me with a deafening clang, but I feel like a free man. Thanks to my certainty in my innocence. Thanks to your support. And thanks to my family,” he wrote.
“They can hold onto power, using it for personal gain, only by relying on our fear,” he wrote. “But we, having overcome fear, can free our homeland from a little bunch of thieving occupiers. And we will.”
Yet on Thursday, Navalny’s chief strategist Leonid Volkov said that for now that effort would not include protests.
Volkov argued Navalny would want their supporters to focus on supporting independent candidates during Duma elections scheduled for this fall.
“We’ll get Navalny out of jail using foreign pressure,” said Volkov, who is based in Europe.
“But if we keep coming out every week,” he added, “we’ll have even thousands more arrested and hundreds beaten.”