MOSCOW/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Russia barred entry to two European Union politicians who had planned to attend the funeral on Tuesday of murdered opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, prompting accusations the Kremlin was using the killing to score petty political points.
The pair, former Latvian foreign minister Sandra Kalniete and Bogdan Borusewicz, the speaker of Poland’s upper house of parliament, were both from countries whose ties with Moscow have come under particular strain in the Ukraine crisis.
Russia said Kalniete was subject to a travel ban for her “anti-Russian activities”. It said she may have been seeking to provoke a row by trying to come to Moscow anyway.
Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, is the most prominent opposition figure to be assassinated in Russia during President Vladimir Putin’s 15-year rule, and his murder within sight of the Kremlin last Friday night may further strain ties with the West.
Thousands filed past his open coffin at a mourning ceremony in Moscow.
Leading Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny was also unable to attend because, he said in a Facebook post, a Russian court rejected his request to let him out of jail for a few hours. He is serving a 15-day sentence for breaching a law that restricts demonstrations.
Kalniete, a member of the European Parliament, posted on Twitter a notice she said was issued to her by the Russian authorities, stating she was barred from Russia until November 2019.
“This step by Russia is certainly difficult to understand since it flies in the face of basic principles of humanity,” Latvia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
The speaker of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, said the barring of Kalniete was “a high affront to EU-Russia relations and the work of democratic institutions.”
It was “doubly serious because in times which call for restraint and goodwill, the Russian administration continues to press all the buttons which go in the opposite direction to de-escalation”.
The Russian foreign ministry, in response to questions from Reuters, said in an statement that Kalniete is “barred from entering the Russian Federation for her anti-Russian activities.”
It said she was on a list of Western figures drawn up in retaliation for Western travel bans imposed on Russians close to the Kremlin over Moscow’s role in Ukraine, where more than 6,000 people have been killed in fighting between pro-Russian rebels and the army.
The Latvian authorities were told in good time that Kalniete was on the list, the statement said.
“Therefore, it is hard to interpret the arrival of the politician as being aimed at anything other than a provocation.”
The ministry did not immediately respond to Reuters questions about why Borusewicz, the Polish lawmaker, was not allowed to enter Russia.
Poland’s foreign ministry said he was barred in retaliation for a EU travel ban on Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the Russian upper house of parliament.
Tuesday’s ceremony was attended by many Western ambassadors and by former British leader John Major, who said he was there as a representative of Prime Minister David Cameron.
“I knew Boris Nemtsov in the 1990s, I liked him, I admired him,” said Major. “In essence he stood for liberty, for freedom of speech.”
Additional reporting by Alex Winning and Tatiana Ustinova in Moscow, Pawel Sobczak and Marcin Goettig in Warsaw and Aija Krutaine in Riga, editing by Anna Willard and Mark Trevelyan