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Aide to Russia's Navalny steps aside in furore over sanctions letter to EU

Leonid Volkov speaks during an interview in Vilnius

By Mark Trevelyan

(Reuters) - A top aide to jailed Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny said on Thursday that he was stepping aside after calling on the European Union to lift sanctions against one of Russia's richest men.

The move by Leonid Volkov, Navalny's chief of staff and a leading face of his movement, sent shockwaves through the opposition, with some seeing it as a gift to President Vladimir Putin.

It came after prominent journalist Alexei Venediktov, whom Navalny's team have accused of being a Kremlin stooge, leaked a February letter with the signatures of Volkov and other opposition figures that called on the EU to lift sanctions on tycoon Mikhail Fridman and associates in his Alfa-Group business empire.

Volkov said his signature on that document had been photoshopped, but revealed he had sent a similar letter to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell last October.

"This letter was a big political mistake," Volkov said, adding that he had exceeded his powers and let down his colleagues by failing to tell them about it.

SANCTIONS

In the October letter, Volkov urged the EU to significantly expand the number of Russians targeted by sanctions, but also to make it easier for people to get the sanctions lifted if they publicly condemned the war in Ukraine and broke with Putin.

He argued in particular for the removal of sanctions on Ukraine-born Fridman, calling him a liberal who had always distanced himself from Putin.

Fridman has kept a low profile since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, but said early in the conflict that it would harm both nations and called for an end to the fighting.

Volkov's position became untenable when Venediktov leaked that Volkov had effectively lobbied in secret on behalf of one of Russia's top "oligarchs".

In a series of tweets, Volkov said he had been wrong to think his approach might "set off a chain reaction of public condemnations of the war and a split in the Russian elites".

He said he had therefore decide to "pause" his public activity as chairman of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation. He said he would soon meet his colleagues and decide whether and how they could keep working together.

Several opposition figures spoke out in Volkov's defence on Thursday.

"Don't go off into the the shadows. Don't give Venediktov and Putin a pretext for such rejoicing," said Ksenia Thorstrom, a St Petersburg municipal deputy.

Many leading opposition figures have fled Russia since Navalny was jailed in 2021 on what he and Western governments and human rights groups say were trumped-up charges designed to silence him.

Now based in Lithuania, Volkov frequently appears on a Navalny YouTube channel that has published numerous investigations of corruption in Russia and has denounced the war in Ukraine. Fridman's current whereabouts are not known.

(Reporting by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Gareth Jones)