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Russia, EU Continue To Square Off Over Navalny As His Allies Ready For New Protest

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The warrant for Leonid Volkov (pictured) is seen as part of an effort to squelch demonstrations demanding the release of Aleksei Navalny, President Vladimir Putin's most vocal critic.

Russia and the European Union continue to square off over the detention and poisoning of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny as his team prepares for a new round of protests aimed at avoiding the mass and sometimes violent arrests that have occurred at previous events.

A court in Moscow on February 10 ordered the arrest of Leonid Volkov, an exiled ally of Navalny's, in a move seen as part of an effort to squelch demonstrations demanding the release of Navalny, President Vladimir Putin's most vocal critic, who has been jailed since January 17.

The arrest order, based on charges that Volkov, the head of the network of Navalny's teams across Russia, encouraged minors to take part in unauthorized rallies, came hours after Russia's Investigative Committee added him to the country's wanted list.

The moves ratcheted up tensions with the European Union, which has sharply criticized the Kremlin for Navalny's detention and is considering new sanctions against Russian officials because of their treatment of the 44-year-old lawyer.

In the past week, Russia has expelled several diplomats from EU countries after the Kremlin accused them of participating in the protests. The moves have been matched tit-for-tat by Sweden, Poland, and Germany, which have told Russian diplomats to pack their bags and head home.

The two sides were already at odds over Russia's 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea and its support for separatist formations waging a war against Kyiv in parts of eastern Ukraine, the EU's rejection of a disputed presidential election in Belarus and criticism of a brutal crackdown by the government of strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and other issues.

"Using international tools for politically motivated prosecution is a wrong practice," Lithuanian Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite said on February 10, referring to the Russian warrant for Volkov sent through Interpol.

"This raises serious doubts about Russia's membership in these organizations," she added.

Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner, was arrested on January 17 upon his return to Russia from Germany, where he was being treated for a nerve-agent poisoning that he says was ordered by Putin, which the Kremlin has denied.

The detention sparked outrage across the country, drawing tens of thousands of people to the streets for two straight weekends in January.

More protests rocked Moscow and St. Petersburg after a court on February 2 sentenced Navalny to 2 years and 8 months in prison for violating terms of his probation while recuperating in Germany.

That sentence stems from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Navalny has rejected as fabricated and the European Court of Human Rights has ruled to be unlawful. He described his new imprisonment as "Putin's personal revenge" for surviving and exposing the assassination plot.

The arrests included Navalny's wife, Yulia, who has been detained several times in recent weeks.

On February 10, the Interfax news agency quoted a source as saying she had left the country, flying to Germany.

Navalnaya's lawyer, Svetlana Davydova, could not confirm the report when asked about it by the TASS news agency, saying she didn't "have such an information."

The protests have been some of the largest anti-government demonstrations that Russia has seen in years. They have also sparked a massive reaction by officials, with some 11,000 people detained for taking to the streets in what the Kremlin has called "illegal" rallies.

In a shift of strategy amid the crackdown, Volkov said last week that the pro-Navalny demonstrations should pause until the spring, arguing that an attempt to maintain rallies each weekend would only lead to thousands more arrests and wear out participants.

On February 9, however, he announced a new form of protest, urging residents in big cities to briefly gather in courtyards on February 14 and flash lights toward the sky.

The new tactics -- similar to ones used by anti-government protesters in Belarus -- are aimed at preventing Russian riot police from interfering and will allow more people to participate without fearing repressions, Volkov said.

The Belarusian protests follow the reelection in August of Lukashenka, the country's longtime autocratic ruler, in balloting widely seen as rigged.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service, Current Time, Interfax, AP, and Reuters
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