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UPDATE 2-EU diplomat tells Russia to free Kremlin critic Navalny at rare talks in Moscow

· 02/05/2021 04:33
UPDATE 2-EU diplomat tells Russia to free Kremlin critic Navalny at rare talks in Moscow

Top EU diplomat in Russia for rare talks

Calls on Moscow to free Alexei Navalny

Russia says EU is an unreliable partner

Recasts with news conference, quotes

By Andrew Osborn and Robin Emmott

- The European Union's top diplomat appealed to Russia on Friday to free jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, a case he said had brought EU-Russian ties to a low, drawing a robust response from Moscow which called the EU an unreliable partner.

Navalny, President Vladimir Putin's most prominent critic, was jailed this week for almost three years for parole violations he called trumped up, a move the West sharply condemned.

In Moscow for rare talks, Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, said he had pressed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the Navalny case.

Borrell said there was not yet a formal proposal for new EU sanctions on Russia but that the 27-member bloc would have a discussion next month about relations between the EU and Russia.

"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," Borrell told a news conference alongside Lavrov.

"Over the last years our relationship has been marked by fundamental differences and a lack of trust."

Navalny was arrested at the Russian border on Jan. 17 on his return from treatment in Germany, where he was flown in August after being poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent.

The Kremlin has questioned whether Navalny was poisoned last August and has denied any involvement in it if he was.

Lavrov said it was up to Brussels if it wanted to impose sanctions on Russia, but that the EU was behaving more and more like Washington in its use of unilateral sanctions.

He described the EU as an unreliable partner.

The veteran Russian foreign minister said Moscow and the EU were at odds over an array of issues, but that there appeared to be a readiness on both side to engage pragmatically where possible, something Borrell echoed.

"We share the view that a further deterioration of ties is fraught with negative and highly unpredictable consequences," Lavrov said.

Despite close trade ties and energy interdependence, Russia's political relations with the European Union soured after Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Navalny was back in court on Friday for a slander trial.

He is accused of slandering a World War Two veteran who took part in a promotional video backing reforms last year that let Putin run for two more terms in the Kremlin after 2024 if he wants.

Navalny at the time described the people in the video as traitors and lackeys. He denies the slander charge.

"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.

"I find it really disgusting and unbearable... You've been using him (the veteran) as a puppet... you're making a mockery of a 95-year-old man."

In comments by video link at the trial, the veteran called on Navalny to apologise publicly to him before saying he could not continue taking part in the hearing for health reasons.

Though the charge is currently punishable by up to two years in jail, his lawyers say he cannot face a custodial sentence because the alleged crime was committed before the law was changed to make it a jailable offence.

(Reporting by Andrew Osborn in Moscow and Robin Emmott in Brussels
Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth, Anton Zverev and Anton Kolodyazhnyy; editing by Nick Macfie)