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DJ Russia to Expel Diplomats in Dispute Over Alexei Navalny

· 02/05/2021 11:41
By Ann M. Simmons and Thomas Grove

MOSCOW -- Russia said it would expel diplomats from Sweden, Poland and Germany for taking part in what authorities say were unlawful rallies in support of jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny last month.

The ambassador of Sweden, Poland's chargé d'affaires and a diplomat from the Germany Embassy in Moscow were summoned to Russia's Foreign Ministry on Friday where they were served with a complaint in connection with "the recorded participation" of diplomatic employees "in illegal actions" on Jan. 23, a ministry statement said.

The Foreign Ministry said diplomatic employees from Sweden and Poland in St. Petersburg and of the German Embassy in Moscow violated diplomatic protocol by participating in the protests.

"Such actions on their part are unacceptable and do not correspond to their diplomatic status," the statement said. The diplomats who took part in the action have been declared "persona non grata" and were ordered to leave Russia in the near future, the statement added.

The move raises the stakes for the European Union's support of Mr. Navalny, who has been increasingly portrayed in state television and by pro-Kremlin authorities as an agent of the West.

Mr. Navalny was evacuated to Germany where he spent five months recovering after he was poisoned in the Russian province of Siberia last year. There a German military laboratory, as well as labs in France and Sweden said they found Novichok in his system, a military grade nerve agent accessible only to those in Russia's military and intelligence circles.

Mr. Navalny accuses Russian President Vladimir of trying to assassinate him, a charge the Kremlin denies. Earlier this year the EU slapped sanctions on a number of Russian officials it held responsible for the poisoning of Mr. Navalny.

On Tuesday, a Russian court sentenced Mr. Navalny to 3 1/2 years in prison, but gave credit for about a year already served, in a move that sidelines the Kremlin's most vocal critic and further angers Mr. Putin's opponents.

News of the expulsions came as Vice President of the European Commission Josep Borrell was holding discussions with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow.

Mr. Borrell said in a statement that he learned the three European diplomats were going to be expelled from Russia during his talks with Mr. Lavrov.

"I strongly condemned this decision and rejected the allegations that they conducted activities incompatible with their status as foreign diplomats," Mr. Borrell said. "The decision should be reconsidered."

Germany said its diplomat was there to gather information rather than support the protests.

"Russia's decision ... is in no way justified and will further damage the relations with Europe," said Heiko Maas, Germany's minister of foreign affairs. "The German diplomat who's been affected has only fulfilled his task -- as outlined in the Vienna Convention for diplomatic relations -- of gathering information about an event by using legal means."

Mr. Maas warned that Germany would respond to Russia's action if Moscow failed to reconsider the expulsion of its embassy employee. Officials from Sweden and Poland didn't immediately respond to the expulsions.

The EU and U.S. have been vocal in their criticism of Mr. Navalny's imprisonment and the heavy-handed tactics employed by Russian security services against protesters who took to the streets the past two weekends in support of the opposition activist and to demand his release.

The Russian government has rebuffed comments from Western leaders over Mr. Navalny's case, saying they are actively interfering in the country's affairs.

On the day of Mr. Navalny's trial, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharov said approximately 20 representatives of Western embassies were at the courthouse on Tuesday to attend Mr. Navalny's hearing.

"It's not just interference in internal affairs of a sovereign state," she said on Facebook. "It's laying bare the unsightly and illegal role of the collective West in attempts to constrain Russia."

--Bojan Pancevski in Berlin and Laurence Norman in Brussels contributed to this article.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 05, 2021 11:41 ET (16:41 GMT)

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