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Angela Merkel Asks Putin 'to Free Navalny' on Moscow Visit; Russian Prez Denies Charges

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during a news conference on the current developments in Afghanistan, at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany August 16, 2021. (Reuters)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during a news conference on the current developments in Afghanistan, at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany August 16, 2021. (Reuters)

Merkel's trip to Moscow coincides with the anniversary of a nerve-agent attack on now-jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose life was saved by Berlin doctors.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to free his political opponent Alexei Navalny from prison on the anniversary of the opposition leader’s poisoning.

“I demanded from the Russian President that he free Navalny," she said in the Kremlin. Putin denied that Navalny was behind bars for his political activity.

Merkel told Putin that Moscow and Berlin should talk despite “deep differences", in her final working visit to Russia before stepping down as leader next month.

Merkel’s trip to Moscow coincides with the anniversary of a nerve-agent attack on now-jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose life was saved by Berlin doctors.

Her aides have made clear that the timing of the meeting is not accidental.

“Even if we have deep disagreements, we are talking to one another and it should stay that way," Merkel told Putin in a televised exchange before the talks at the Kremlin.

“We have a lot to talk about," she added, naming several issues on their agenda, including the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

They are also expected to discuss the simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine and the authoritarian crackdown in Russia-allied Belarus.

Putin greeted Merkel with flowers, a gesture he reserves for female leaders, and said he hoped the visit will not only be a “farewell" one, but a “serious one".

Merkel, who will bow out of politics following German elections on September 26, did not mention Navalny in her opening comments.

She has blamed the attack on the Kremlin after tests in European laboratories showed Navalny was poisoned using the Novichok chemical weapon, and has called for his release. Putin denies any involvement.

Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said the attack had put a “heavy burden" on relations between the two countries.

“Our demands have still not been met," Seibert said earlier this week, adding that the case was still “unresolved".

French President Emmanuel Macron called on Putin to release Navalny on the eve of Merkel’s visit in a phone call with the Russian leader, according to the Elysee.

The chancellor will travel to Russia’s rival Ukraine after visiting the Kremlin chief, who infrequently receives Western visitors in Moscow.

Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, and Putin, a former KGB agent stationed there, speak each other’s languages.

During the chancellor’s 16 years in power, the pair always kept a dialogue despite strained relations, dampened by issues ranging from alleged cyberattacks to the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

‘Wrongly’ imprisoned

Merkel visited Navalny when he was treated at the Charite hospital in Berlin following the near-fatal poisoning.

Navalny is now held in a maximum security prison colony in Pokrov, 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of Moscow.

This month he was charged with new crimes that could prolong his jail time by three years. If found guilty, he could only be released after 2024, the year Russia is scheduled to hold a presidential election.

Seibert said Navalny had been “wrongly" imprisoned.

In a message from prison posted on his Instagram by his team Friday, Navalny said the 20th of August — when he thought “he died" after losing consciousness on a flight over Siberia — was his “second birthday".

He thanked his supporters for calling for him to be taken out of Russia for treatment.

“Thanks to you I survived and landed in prison," he joked, adding “sorry, I could not help myself".

Amnesty International called Navalny’s poisoning an “outrageous crime" that Russia should have urgently investigated.

“Instead, the Russian government chose to throw Navalny behind bars on false grounds," it said in a statement on Friday.

The 45-year-old’s movement has faced unprecedented pressure ahead of September parliamentary polls in Russia, in which Putin’s United Russia party is expected to struggle.

Navalny has called on Russians from prison to sabotage the September election with his strategy of “Smart Voting", that encourages voters to back candidates best placed to defeat Kremlin-linked politicians.

The German leader is expected to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky Sunday, as tensions continue over Moscow’s troop build-up on Ukraine’s borders.

Germany has been a major player in efforts to broker peace in eastern Ukraine.

Merkel may also seek to provide Ukraine with assurances over Nord Stream 2, the controversial gas pipeline set to double natural gas supplies from Russia to Germany.

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first published:August 20, 2021, 17:44 IST