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Haavisto and Lavrov sharply disagree on Navalny, expulsions of EU diplomats

The Finnish foreign minister expressed concerns on behalf of the EU at a joint press conference in St Petersburg.

Pekka Haavisto ja Sergei Lavrovin tiedotustilaisuus.
Foreign ministers Pekka Haavisto and Sergei Lavrov held a press conference at a hotel adjacent to the Hermitage. Image: Grigory Vorobjov / Yle

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (Green) met with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov in St Petersburg on Monday.

Speaking on behalf of both Finland and the EU, Haavisto condemned the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and the expulsion of EU diplomats who attended pro-Navalny demonstrations as observers.

On 5 February, Russia deported three diplomats from Sweden, Poland and Germany for allegedly participating in unauthorized rallies in Moscow and St. Petersburg on 23 January. The expulsions were carried out without telling EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who was in Moscow for a visit.

Three days later, those three countries deported Russian diplomats in response.

Haavisto said that relations between the EU and Russia are in a very difficult situation at the moment, adding that the diplomats had been carrying out their work normally within the bounds of the Vienna Conventions.

Diplomats "meddling in Russia's internal affairs"

Lavrov dismissed both issues, saying that the demonstrations were illegal as mass gatherings are banned due to the pandemic.

He alleged that the deported European diplomats had participated in unauthorized rallies and were "meddling in Russia's internal affairs," according to the Russian news agency Tass.

"Diplomats, when they [took] to the streets in this situation...knew perfectly well that they are not fulfilling their functions according to the Vienna Conventions," Lavrov said.

Russia's top diplomat said however that the Navalny situation had not affected Moscow's relations with Finland. "We do not experience any negative influence on our close bilateral cooperation," he was quoted as saying by Tass.

Haavisto said he had consulted ahead of his trip with the foreign ministers of several other EU countries, including Germany, France and Sweden, and would report back to them about the talks.

Haavisto also raised EU concerns about developments in Belarus, Ukraine and Chechnya among other issues.

Praise from Niinistö

On Friday, Lavrov was quoted on a Foreign Ministry website as saying that Russia would be ready to cut off ties with the EU if the bloc imposed economic sanctions on it over the Navalny case and the deportation of the diplomats.

European diplomats told Reuters a day earlier that the EU was likely to impose travel bans and asset freezes on allies of President Vladimir Putin, possibly as soon as this month.

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö praised Haavisto's handling of the press conference.

In a tweet, Niinistö said: "While Lavrov was calmer than before, Haavisto brought up everything essential – a good performance!"

In late January, Niinistö called Putin to discuss the Navalny situation at length.

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