EU ministers agree human rights sanctions on Russian officials

February 23, 2021
File photo of Alexei Navalny.
File photo of Alexei Navalny.

BRUSSELS — Foreign ministers from EU countries have agreed to place further sanctions against Russian officials over the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

If approved by the European Council, it will be the first time the EU has used a new mechanism to facilitate punitive measures against human rights abuses. The agreement was reached on Monday at a meeting in Brussels, where it was said four Russian officials are being targeted.

According to diplomatic sources, they will be hit with asset freezes and entry bans to the bloc, which will likely take effect once European leaders meet next month.

But oligarchs are not thought to figure among them, to the disappointment of Navalny's supporters. Rather the measures are aimed at police and legal officials responsible for his "unacceptable treatment," Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said ahead of the meeting.

First use of new EU sanctions regime

EU chief diplomat Josep Borrell told a news conference on Monday that Russia was "drifting towards an authoritarian state and driving away from Europe".

"The ministers unanimously interpreted Russia's recent actions and responses as a clear signal of not being interested in cooperation with the European Union, but the country looks interested in confrontation and disengagement from the European Union," he said, confirming the planned sanctions but without giving details.

The diplomatic chief has been given the task of drawing up the names of officials facing sanctions, according to diplomats. It will be the first time that Brussels uses its recently established sanctions regime, similar to the Magnitsky Act in the US.

This mechanism enables the 27 member states to punish those considered responsible for human rights abuses through the freezing of assets and travel bans. The US law is named after Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian jail after uncovering a huge fraud scheme allegedly involving government officials.

The move follows Borrell's much criticized visit to Moscow earlier this month. He made no headway over Navalny and Russia expelled diplomats from three EU countries during his trip.

"It's widely seen as the EU wanting to save face, especially after this disastrous trip by Josep Borrell — the EU's high representative for foreign affairs — to Russia two weeks ago, a trip that was largely seen as a humiliation," said Euronews Brussels reporter Bryan Carter.

"There have been strong calls especially from the European Parliament for much tougher sanctions to be taken on Russia, but the EU is deeply divided on this issue." Last October the European Union imposed sanctions on six individuals and one entity it believed were involved in Navalny's poisoning.

Before Monday's meeting, Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said they would look at the question of sanctions against Russia again, "particularly because of Navalny's conviction and the fact that he has to serve his sentence at a prison camp".

"I am for issuing the mandate to impose such sanctions, preparing the listing of individuals. But at the same time, we must look for ways to remain in dialogue with Moscow. We need Russia to resolve many international conflicts," he added.

Failure to target oligarchs criticized

Ahead of the meeting, Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn stressed the legal difficulty of targeting oligarchs, despite calls by Navalny's allies for measures to sanction members of Russia's business elite with close links to the Kremlin.

One Navalny ally, Leonid Kolkov, part of a group which met EU foreign ministers on Sunday, questioned the impact of travel bans and asset freezes on officials "who don't like traveling abroad and don't have any assets abroad".

On Monday Kolkov said EU leaders needed to take stronger action against Russia, as Putin views the "dialogue approach" as a sign of weakness.

"This policy, if it continues, will just help Putin to evolve from an authoritarian regime to a full and strong dictatorship which would be very dangerous for the world in the 21st century.

“And of course it is very painful now, already, to do something against Putin's money in Europe, against construction projects that are already in place," he told a news conference.

"It would definitely do some harm to the European economy. But... earlier or later, you will still have to do it!" Kolkov concluded.

Navalny himself told MEPs in November that the EU should target money and oligarchs including new members of Russian President Vladimir Putin's circle.

Russia, which accuses the EU of meddling in its affairs, warned that it was "ready to react" to a "new cycle of restrictive, unilateral, illegitimate measures", Moscow's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, told the German newspaper Die Welt before the EU ministers' meeting.

Navalny, 44, was arrested in January upon his return to Germany where he had been treated following his poisoning in Russia for which he blames the Kremlin. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed that the substance used was Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent.

At the weekend he lost an appeal against a decision converting a suspended prison sentence for fraud dating from 2014 into a firm sentence for violating his parole conditions.

His supporters question how he could have respected them while he was in a coma having been poisoned.

The Kremlin critic was also found guilty in a separate case of "defamation" against a World War II veteran and fined 850,000 rubles (around €9,500).

The EU has condemned the "politicization" of the Russian justice system and called for Navalny's release without conditions.

EU sanctions over Myanmar coup

EU foreign ministers also agreed on a set of "targeted measures" against the military responsible for the coup in Myanmar, Borrell said.

Speaking after the meeting in Brussels, the EU's foreign policy chief described recent developments in the country as "extremely worrying."

He reiterated that the ministers "strongly condemn this military coup and unacceptable violence against peaceful demonstrators," adding that development aid for government reform programs would be withheld.

On Hong Kong, ministers agreed on a "two-step process" with both short and longer-term actions to protect civil liberties, the EU's top diplomat said, noting that the situation in the Chinese territory "keeps deteriorating". — Euronews

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