BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union will hold off from imposing fresh sanctions on Russian individuals if the Kremlin releases pro-democracy campaigner Alexei Navalny, EU foreign ministers said on Monday, sending the bloc’s top diplomat to Moscow next week.
Despite calls from Baltic countries, Italy and Romania for sanctions on Russian officials in response to Navalny’s detention as he returned to Russia from Germany on Jan. 17, Germany pushed to give the Kremlin more time.
“We have agreed today to wait for the court’s decision, to wait to see … whether Alexei Navalny is set free after 30 days,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters following a meeting with his EU counterparts. “This is not over.”
Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic, was detained and jailed for alleged parole violations after flying back to Russia for the first time since being poisoned by what Germany says was a military-grade nerve agent in August.
He accuses Putin of ordering his murder, which the Kremlin denies. His supporters held nationwide protests on Saturday, leading to more than 3,000 arrests and intensifying international calls for Navalny’s release.
In central Moscow on Saturday, where Reuters reporters estimated up to 40,000 people had gathered in one of the biggest unauthorised rallies for years, police were seen roughly detaining people, bundling them into nearby vans.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he would go to Moscow next week to press the Kremlin to free demonstrators and Navalny. EU leaders could discuss any further steps at a planned summit on March 25-26, he said.
Earlier, Lithuania’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said the EU needed to send a “very clear and decisive message” to Moscow, pushing for the bloc to agree sanctions under its new human rights sanctions framework, which allows for quicker adoption of asset freezes and travel bans.
The EU already has economic sanctions on the Russian energy, financial and arms sectors over its 2014 annexation of the Crimea peninsula. It has imposed sanctions on six Russian officials close to Putin in response to Navalny’s poisoning, as well as on one entity responsible for the destruction of Soviet-era chemical weapons stockpiles.
Fellow Baltic countries Latvia and Estonia support more EU sanctions on Russian individuals, and Italy’s foreign minister said on Sunday that Rome was ready to support more travel bans and asset freezes. Romania publicly backed sanctions on Monday.
Germany and France, the EU’s main powers, will be central to deciding if the bloc goes ahead with punitive measures on Russia, a big oil and gas exporter to the bloc.
(Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold in Berlin; Editing by Peter Graff)