Facing EU anger, Russia lifts travel ban on critics

7th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

Russia on Thursday abruptly withdrew a rare ban on foreign travel for two fierce critics of the Kremlin after the move was roundly condemned at a session of EU lawmakers.

Former senior minister Boris Nemtsov and his political ally Vladimir Milov said they had learned of the travel restriction by telephone on Wednesday while attending a human rights panel in Europe.

The six-month ban orders were published on both men's blogs and were supposed to have gone into effect as soon as they returned to Russia.

The decision was immediately condemned by European Parliament lawmakers and resulted in another sharp diplomatic exchange in which the foreign ministry accused the European Union of interfering in Russia's domestic affairs.

But those words were soon followed by an emergency meeting of the Federal Bailiff Service that concluded with a dramatic reversal of the initial ban.

The bailiffs initially said the ban was imposed because the two had failed to publish a proper correction to a pamphlet alleging that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had made his childhood friends wealthy in modern Russia.

The court ruling said the correction that appeared in the Kommersant business daily on March 26 was too short.

But officials from the service met again on Thursday evening and cancelled the ban without an explanation. A statement released to Russian news agencies said only that the decision had been reached "prematurely".

Nemtsov and Milov both enjoy broad recognition and respect in the West but have only marginal followings in Russia and almost no access to official media outlets.

The documents posted on the two men's blogs show the bailiffs acting on a request of billionaire Gennady Timchenko -- a tycoon whose energy trading firm became a major force in the past decade and who is involved in a defamation case against the two men.

"This is the first time in post-Soviet Russian history that a person was banned from travel for political reasons," Nemtsov told Kommersant.

"Of course we have already appealed everything and are convinced that we are right," Milov added in his blog.

The initial travel restrictions were announced only hours before lawmakers in the European Parliament voted to approve a resolution condemning Russia for barring a party co-headed by the two men from December's parliamentary polls.

The European resolution also condemned the travel restriction. A spokesman for the Russian foreign ministry called the vote "nothing new".

"The fact that the European Parliament is once again trying to grossly interfere with our local laws is nothing new," Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told reporters.

"I do not exclude us providing a more explicit response to this later," he added.

The defamation charges concerned a pamphlet that Nemtsov co-authored in 2010 entitled "Putin. Results. 10 Years."

It alleged that the gas trader Timchenko -- whose wealth was estimated at $5.5 billion by Forbes magazine in 2011 -- profited from an earlier friendship with Putin and received special favours that helped his Gunvor firm grow.

Timchenko insists that he knows Putin only in passing and won several Russian court cases linked to the same allegations.

© 2011 AFP

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