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Alexei Navalny: no EU agreement for sanctions against Russia over arrest of Kremlin critic

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A demonstrator clashes with a police officer during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia, Jan. 23, 2021
A demonstrator clashes with a police officer during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia, Jan. 23, 2021   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Victor Berezkin
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European Union foreign ministers could not agree on further sanctions against Russia over the detention of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and his supporters as they met in Brussels on Monday.

The opposition leader was arrested on January 18 as he returned to Russia following a five-month convalescence in Germany after a nerve agent attack.

Thousands of protesters across the country were detained after rallying in numerous cities to demand his release at the weekend.

At least 3,000 arrests were reported on Saturday in locations spanning from Siberia to Moscow, according to the OVD-info organisation that monitors political detentions, as thousands more demonstrated in temperatures as low as -50C.

Gabrielius Landsbergis, Minister of Foreign Affairs for Lithuania, had told reporters earlier in the day that Europe needed "to send a very clear and decisive message that this is not acceptable and we have a very, in my opinion, effective mechanism - the EU global rights sanctions regime."

But the 27 EU foreign ministers agreed only to call for the release of Navalny and those detained during the demonstrations.

The EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell is also set to visit Russia in early February to discuss the issue.

"It will be a good opportunity to discuss with my Russian counterpart all relevant issues. To pass clear messages about the current situation, the contentious on rights and freedoms and also to have a discussion about our relations with Russia," Borrell said.

The Russian government continues to use its messaging channels to claim the Navlany case is a western attempt to "interfere in their internal affairs".

The EU already imposed asset freeze and travel ban sanctions on six people they blame for the opposition leader's poisoning.

Landsbergis's Romanian counterpart, Bogdan Aurescu, had said that he "will reiterate Romania's condemnation of the arrest of Mr Navalny, which is unacceptable and I will reiterate our opinion that repression against the opposition just because it is the opposition is unacceptable and is non-democratic."

Upon his arrival at Monday's meeting, Germany's foreign minister, Heiko Maas, called for the release of the protesters who were arrested across the country on Saturday during protests in support of Navalny.

"The rule of law must also apply in Russia," he added.

The foreign ministers of Latvia and Estonia also said in a joint statement prior to the meeting that they "strongly condemn the detention of peaceful protesters in Russia" and that "the EU must be decisive in imposing restrictive measures against Russian officials responsible for arrests".

Russia has meanwhile accused Western countries of interfering in its domestic affairs and of encouraging people to break the law and protest.

The US embassy in Moscow on Saturday published a map of the protest, urging US citizens to stay away from the area, which Moscow argued is proof Washington encouraged the unauthorised demonstrations.

"The US embassy in Russia has once again posted detailed information regarding time and locations of unauthorised mass rallies. This is in line with Washington's provocative policy of encouraging protests in countries whose governments are seen by the US as undesirable," Russia's Foreign Ministry tweeted.

The Russian embassy in the UK also said it amounted to "a professionally prepared provocation, encouraged by Western countries, including the US embassy in Moscow."

The EU has so far imposed sanctions on six individuals and one entity over Navalny's poisoning.

These include the head of the domestic intelligence services, a deputy government minister and a deputy chief of staff in President Vladimir Putin's office.

Also on the agenda at today's meeting of foreign ministers is the COVAX scheme - a global initiative to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for all countries, to which the EU is the biggest single donor at €500m.

Richer Western countries have been accused of bulk buying vaccine supplies and doing little to help lower-income nations.

EU countries are rolling out their vaccination programmes, while those on the outside wait for COVAX to start. Countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia are yet to receive a single dose.

Under discussion will be how the EU is helping its neighbours to get hold of vaccines, especially those Balkan states that are looking to join the EU in the future.

Although, this comes at a time that members are facing delays in their own supplies of the jabs.