International 06/02/2021

Russia uses imprisonment of Catalan politicians before Borrell to defend itself over Navalni case

Kremlin expels German, Polish and Swedish diplomats for taking part in protests for the release of opposition activist

2 min
EU High Representative Josep Borrell with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

BrusselsJosep Borrell already knew he was treading on hostile territory when he decided to go to Moscow on Thursday as the EU's High Representative. The recent imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalni was added to the string of conflicts that mark the relationship between Russia and the EU. But Borrell decided to stick to the journey. And it has not turned out as he had hoped. Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, used the press conference as a trap to score a victory in the geopolitical struggle, and not only in terms of vaccination against the coronavirus. Lavrov not only got Borrell to praise Russia's Sputnik vaccine, but he also stabbed the former Spanish minister in the back when he attacked him on one of his weak points. He reproached him for imprisoning political prisoners in Catalonia to defend himself against accusations of the poisoning and imprisonment of Navalni. And Borrell was undeterred.

"We also see in Europe some situations where courts are suspected of making political decisions. I would like to talk about the prisoners sentenced to more than ten years in prison for organising a referendum in Catalonia. We were accused without evidence of intervening in the 1-O referendum", the Russian minister blurted out. And to defend that the Spanish judicial decision was politically motivated, he even recalled the rulings in Belgium and Germany that contradicted it. "The Spanish authorities asked that their courts not be questioned, and we demand the same in terms of reciprocity", concluded Lavrov. It is well known that Borrell gave an interview to a German television station while still a minister, in which he threatened to get up and leave when he was asked about the Catalan independence bid.

Cold in expression and harsh in tone, Lavrov criticised the EU's 'arrogance' in daring to go to Moscow and demand Navalni's release. Meanwhile, Josep Borrell stood straight at the lectern next to him, withstanding the pressure with a tense smile. In his turn to speak, the high representative of European diplomacy praised the Russian vaccine and assured that he hoped that the European Medicines Agency (EMA) would give the go-ahead: "I congratulate Russia on its success. This is good news for humanity, it means we will have more tools to fight the pandemic. I hope the EMA will approve it, it would be good news because, as you know, we have a shortage of vaccines", Borrell said, revealing a certain weakness in Brussels.

The vaccination campaign has become a geopolitical scramble for the narrative and the EU, for the moment, is on the receiving end of all sides: from China, from the UK, and also from Russia. It would be a clear defeat if the EU had to resort to Moscow's vaccination (as Viktor Orbán did in Hungary) in order to achieve its goals. This week, Merkel strongly defended the EU's strategy, arguing that security had been prioritised over speed, but Borrell has been unable to sustain this position.

The head of European diplomacy has been much softer than usual. In his vindication of the Navalni case - whom he did not visit in prison - he added that the EU respects Russian 'sovereignty' and also failed to mention the conflict in Ukraine. The Kremlin had already warned that it would not accept " lectures" and Borrell made the trip without a consensus of the EU-27 to be blunt, because despite the unanimous condemnation of the imprisonment of the opposition leader by European governments, there will not be a real debate on the possibility of applying sanctions against Russia until March.