Russia expels EU diplomats over Navalny as tensions rise

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Babuskinsky District Court

In this image made from video provided by the Babuskinsky District Court, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny stands in a cage during a hearing on his charges for defamation, in the Babuskinsky District Court in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Navalny was accused of slandering a World War II veteran featured in the video promoting the constitutional reform allowing to extend President Vladimir Putin's rule. The politician slammed people in the video as "corrupt stooges" and "traitors." (Babuskinsky District Court via AP)

MOSCOW – Russia said Friday it was expelling diplomats from Sweden, Poland and Germany, accusing them of attending a rally in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, as international tensions grew over the jailing of the Kremlin’s most prominent foe.

The announcement came as the European Union’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that the treatment of Navalny represents “a low point” in relations between Brussels and Moscow.

The Russian Foreign Ministry accused Swedish and Polish diplomats in St. Petersburg and a German diplomat in Moscow of taking part in what it called “unlawful” rallies on Jan. 23. Tens of thousands of people across Russia took to the streets that day to protest Navalny's arrest.

The diplomats were declared “persona non grata” and were required to leave Russia “shortly,” a ministry statement said.

European officials strongly denounced the move.

Germany said its diplomat was fulfilling his duty by following the developments, and it warned Moscow that its action won't go unanswered, summoning the Russian ambassador.

“We consider this expulsion unjustified and think it is another facet of the things that can be seen in Russia at the moment that are pretty far from the rule of law,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Berlin after a videoconference with French President Emmanuel Macron. Macron expressed solidarity with Germany, Poland and Sweden and condemned “in the stronger terms” the expulsions and what happened to Navalny “from the beginning to the end.”

Sweden said it “considers this entirely unjustified, which we have also conveyed to the Russian side,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mats Samuelsson said in a statement to The Associated Press. Stockholm “strongly rejects Russian claims that the diplomat took part in a demonstration in Russia" and “reserves the right to take appropriate measures in response,” he said.