Russia Expels Western Diplomats Who Attended Pro-Navalny Protests

The Russian government said Friday it was expelling Western diplomats for attending rallies in support of jailed opposition politician Alexey Navalny. Diplomats from Poland and Sweden in St. Petersburg and from Germany in Moscow were targeted for participating in “unlawful” rallies on January 23, according to Russia’s foreign ministry. Tens of thousands of protesters filled the streets across Russia that day to express opposition to the arrest of Navalny, the Kremlin’s leading critic.  Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell hold a joint press conference following their talks in Moscow, Feb. 5, 2021.The ministry made the announcement as the European Union’s most senior diplomat told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that the government’s treatment of Navalny represents “a low point” in relations between the 27-nation bloc and Moscow. In a statement, the ministry declared the diplomats “persona non grata” and said they must leave Russia “shortly.” A Swedish Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said the country refutes Russia’s claim that the Swedish diplomat participated in the demonstration. German Chancellor Angela Merkel denounced the move and said after discussing security issues with French President Emmanuel Macron that “We consider this expulsion to be unjustified.” Poland’s foreign ministry said in a statement that “The Polish side expects the Russian authorities to reverse this erroneous decision” or “Otherwise, Poland leaves itself the option to take appropriate steps.” After his virtual meeting with Merkel, Macron said at a Paris news conference that he “very strongly” opposes Friday’s expulsions and Russia’s arrest and alleged poisoning of Navalny. FILE – A still image taken from video footage shows Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny making a hand heart gesture during the announcement of a court verdict in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 2, 2021.A Russian court Tuesday sentenced Navalny to three-and-a-half years in prison, defying condemnation abroad and public outcry at home to send one of the Kremlin’s most vocal critics to jail.    The court found Navalny violated his parole from a prior 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.   Navalny insists, and international media investigations suggest, the poison attack was carried out by Russian security services who laced his underwear with a military-grade nerve agent while the opposition leader was traveling in Siberia last August. Russian authorities deny this. FILE – Law enforcement officers stand guard during a demonstration after Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail, in Moscow, Feb. 2, 2021.Navalny’s sentencing triggered new protests Tuesday in Moscow and St. Petersburg that followed large demonstrations over the past two weekends, resulting in the arrest of more 1,400 protesters. Russian police beat many peaceful protesters and used stun guns against some in an attempt to suppress the opposition. Lavrov defended the Russian police response to the protests, contending it was much less forceful than some police actions against demonstrators in Western countries. 

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