EU’s foreign policy chief Borrell has conveyed his concerns on the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny to Russian FM Lavrov, who called the bloc an unreliable partner. Both sides, however, appeared ready to engage where possible.
The European Union's top diplomat has told Russian authorities that their treatment of jailed opposition politician Alexey Navalny represented a low point in ties as Navalny appeared in court again over a slander case.
Navalny, President Vladimir Putin's most prominent critic, was jailed this week for almost three years for parole violations he called trumped up, a case that the West has condemned and which has spurred talk of sanctions.
Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, began talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday. Ahead of those talks, he said he wanted to broach difficult issues like the Navalny case.
Lavrov said he was ready to engage and complained about the state of EU-Russia ties. He has previously accused the West of hysteria and double standards over the Navalny case, while the Kremlin has warned it will respond to harsh criticism from Borrell in kind.
Started my visit to snowy Moscow this morning exchanging with representatives of the civil society, which is still vibrant despite the shrinking space for independent voices in #Russia.— Josep Borrell Fontelles (@JosepBorrellF) February 5, 2021
The EU is & will continue to be the main supporter for civil society projects in the country pic.twitter.com/IkzNOWxW2n
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, 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."
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.
Navalny's jailing has sparked Western calls for his release and added a new irritant to strained relations between Russian and the West.
Moscow considers EU an 'unreliable partner'
Russia considers the European Union to be an unreliable partner, Lavrov said following talks with Borrell in Moscow.
Lavrov was commenting on the possibility of EU sanctions against Moscow over its treatment of jailed Kremlin critic Navalny.
Lavrov said the question of possible sanctions was an internal matter for the EU, but said Russia had noticed how Brussels was increasingly behaving like the United States and imposing unilateral restrictions on countries.
"For Russia, the EU is an unreliable partner," Lavrov said.
EU's Borrell hails Russian vaccine
Meanwhile, Borrell hailed the success of Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, and said he hoped it could be certified for use in the bloc.
"It's good news for the whole of mankind because it means we will have more tools to fight the pandemic," Borrell told journalists after the talks.
He said he hoped the European Medicines Agency would certify the vaccine for use in EU member states.
Borrell added that another source of supplies would be welcome as the EU is "facing a shortage of vaccines."
'Truth is on my side'
The diplomats said they wanted Russia and the EU to work together despite their differences.
"There are issues in which we can and must work together," Borrell told reporters at a joint news conference with Lavrov, who said that "both sides have confirmed their interest in maintaining and expanding channels of dialogue, including on issues on which our positions differ."
Navalny, 44, was arrested at Moscow airport last month on arrival from Germany where he had been recovering from a poisoning attack last August that he blamed on Russian leader Putin.
After being imprisoned on Tuesday for two years and eight months, Navalny appeared in court on Friday on the first day of a separate trial for defamation.
The trained lawyer is accused of describing who appeared in a pro-Kremlin video – including a 95-year-old veteran – as "the shame of the country" and "traitors" in a June tweet.
The video backed constitutional amendments that passed last summer allowing Putin to remain in power until 2036.
Navalny in court accused the veteran's relatives of "selling him to make money" and said Russian state media was behind the case.
"It is clear to everyone that the truth is on my side," he said.
The slander charge carries a maximum penalty of two years but the court was not expected to return a verdict on Friday.
As well as discussing Navalny, Borrell was eager to sound out Lavrov on the chances of cooperation on reviving the Iran nuclear deal and tackling climate change.
The high-profile visit has drawn criticism from some European capitals worried Moscow will spin it as evidence Brussels is keen to return to business as usual.
Calls in Europe are growing for the EU to slap new sanctions on Moscow. An EU statement said foreign ministers would discuss "possible further action" on February 22.
US President Joe Biden has vowed to take a tougher stance on Russia than his predecessor Donald Trump, and officials promised on Thursday that Washington would take action against Moscow over Navalny and for other "malign" behaviour.
The Kremlin hit back on Friday, criticising "aggressive and unconstructive rhetoric" from the United States.
"We've already said that we will not heed patronising statements of this sort," said Putin's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.
In a separate probe, Navalny faces a 10-year sentence for supposedly using $4.8 million worth of donations for personal purposes including holidays abroad.
On Thursday, he called on his supporters to fight fear and liberate Russia from "thieves" in power, while his aides promised to stage large demonstrations later this year ahead of parliamentary elections.