EU leaders condemn poisoning of Russian opposition leader

The apparent assassination attempt on an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin is proving another key test for the EU and the West on its stance towards Russia.
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By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

03 Sep 2020

Two senior MEPs have joined a growing international outcry after German authorities confirmed that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned by a Soviet-era nerve agent.

A German military laboratory insists that Navalny was poisoned with the chemical weapon Novichok; a move German Chancellor Angela Merkel called “attempted murder.”

Navalny, a politician and corruption investigator, who is one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critics, fell ill on a flight back to Moscow from Siberia on August 20. He is still in a serious condition and the hospital said he faces a long road to recovery.

Novichok - meaning “newcomer” in Russian - was also used to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury in the UK in March 2018, sparking a major investigation by British authorities and drawing international condemnation.

Western intelligence agencies believe that Novichok has since been refined into a hard-to-detect assassination weapon and is now being used to target those deemed as traitors to the Russian state.

Navalny, the founder of the Russian Anti-Corruption Foundation, has been in a medically-induced coma since August 20 after becoming seriously ill and there are fears he will never fully recover.

After the German lab finding was announced on September 2, Merkel said, “With this, it is certain that Alexei Navalny is the victim of a crime. Once more we see violence directed against a leading Russian opposition figure.”

“It is essential that the Russian government investigates thoroughly and in a transparent manner the assassination attempt of Navalny. Those responsible must be brought to justice” Josep Borrell, EU High Representative

While Navalny appeared to have been poisoned on Russian soil, rather than in a Nato member country, Merkel said that there were now “very serious questions” which only the Russian government could, and must, answer.

Reaction to the news was swift with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen criticising a “despicable and cowardly act - once again.”

Council President Charles Michel endorsed her remarks and said he condemned the poisoning “in the strongest possible terms.”

In a statement, the EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell said “the use of chemical weapons under any circumstances is completely unacceptable and a breach of international law.” The former Spanish MEP called the poisoning an “assassination attempt”, adding, “Alexei Navalny’s case must not go unresolved.”

He went on, “It is essential that the Russian government investigates thoroughly and in a transparent manner the assassination attempt of Navalny. Those responsible must be brought to justice.” Borrell said that the European Union will continue to closely follow the issue and discuss its implications.

Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also condemned the suspected Novichok attack as “truly shocking.” A statement by the former Norwegian Prime Minister said that “the use of a military-grade nerve agent makes it even more urgent that the Russian authorities conduct a full and transparent investigation. Those responsible must be identified and held accountable.”

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian condemned the use of the nerve agent and said it was Russia's responsibility to answer the “serious questions” raised by the issue.

“The case is unfortunately not the first one involving acts of violence against representatives of the Russian political opposition in the recent past, and comes in the middle of a widespread crackdown on journalists and dissenting voices in Russia” David McAllister MEP and Andrius Kubilius MEP

Meanwhile, in a joint statement, two senior MEPs, German EPP member and Foreign Affairs Committee chair David McAllister and party colleague and former Prime Minister of Lithuania Andrius Kubilius, have called on Russia to establish who was responsible for the incident.

The statement expresses their “deepest concern” at the Navalny case, adding, “While we would like to wish him a full and swift recovery, we would also like to call for an independent and transparent international investigation of the case, in order to bring to justice all instigators and perpetrators.”

It goes on, “The case is unfortunately not the first one involving acts of violence against representatives of the Russian political opposition in the recent past, and comes in the middle of a widespread crackdown on journalists and dissenting voices in Russia. It is also unfortunately not the last, as another leading Russian opposition blogger, Yegor Zhukov, has been beaten up on 30 August close to his home in Moscow.”

“The case of Navalny has, however, a disturbing similarity with the poisonings of Sergei Skripal, his daughter Julia and Alexandr Litvinenko in the UK, Anna Politkovskaya and Pyotr Verzilov in Russia, on all of which the Russian authorities have failed to shed light. It is high time for the Russian authorities to act responsibly and do everything in their power to ensure that the instigators and perpetrators of all those crimes are held to account, as only a clear and unequivocal sign that the Russian judicial system is working and willing to prosecute political violence will bring it to an end.”

Navalny has been a vigorous campaigner against corruption and his allies in Russia have insisted he was deliberately poisoned by the country’s authorities, accusations the Kremlin reject as “empty noise.”

Moscow has denied any wrongdoing in the case and has, so far, rejected all calls for an investigation. The question now is: how will governments react to this latest use of a Novichok nerve agent against a public political figure?

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