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Prominent Putin foe Alexei Navalny in coma after suspected poisoning

Alexei Navalny in 2019
Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny speaks at a protest in Moscow in July 2019.
(Pavel Golovkin / Associated Press)

Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny was in a coma and on a ventilator in an intensive care unit in Siberia on Thursday after falling ill from a suspected poisoning that his allies believe is linked to his political activity.

The 44-year-old critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin felt unwell on a flight back to Moscow from Tomsk, a city in Siberia, and was taken to a hospital after the plane made an emergency landing in Omsk, Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, said on Twitter.

She told the Echo Moskvy radio station that he must have consumed poison in tea he drank at an airport cafe before boarding the plane early Thursday. During the flight, Navalny started sweating and asked her to talk to him so that he could “focus on the sound of a voice.” He then went to the bathroom and lost consciousness, and has been in a coma in grave condition ever since.

Other opposition figures were quick to suggest Kremlin involvement.

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“We are sure that the only people that have the capability to target Navalny or myself are Russian security services with definite clearance from Russia’s political leadership,” said Pyotr Verzilov, a member of the protest group Pussy Riot, who ended up in intensive care after a suspected poisoning in 2018. “We believe that Putin definitely is a person who gives that go-ahead in this situation.”

Doctors at the hospital in Omsk, where Navalny is being treated, said only that they were considering a variety of theories, including poisoning.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been released after spending a month in jail for calling for an unsanctioned protest.

According to Yarmysh, the hospital initially refused to let Navalny’s wife, Yulia, see him, and has rejected requests for documentation that would allow him to be transferred to a European hospital for treatment.

Navalny’s doctor, Yaroslav Ashikhmin, told the independent Meduza outlet that he was trying to arrange the opposition leader’s transfer to a clinic in Hanover, Germany, or Strasbourg, France. Paul Ziemiak, the secretary general of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, has offered Germany’s help in providing medical treatment.

Verzilov, who was flown to Berlin for treatment in 2018, said hospitals in Omsk or Moscow would not be able to treat Navalny properly and expressed concern about the pressure from security services that doctors could be under in Russia.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was necessary to wait for test results showing what caused Navalny’s condition, adding the authorities would consider a request to allow Navalny to leave Russia, which has not fully opened its borders after a coronavirus lockdown, for treatment.

The two men accused by Britain of poisoning a former Russian spy and his daughter with a nerve agent claim they had traveled to England as tourists and were not Russian military intelligence agents.

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The Russian state news agency Tass reported that police were not considering deliberate poisoning, a statement Navalny’s allies dismissed.

The widow of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy who died in London of radioactive poisoning in 2006, voiced concerns that Navalny’s enemies within Russia may have decided that the time had come to use a “new tactic.”

“It was obvious he would not be stopped” from continuing his political activities, Marina Litvinenko told the Associated Press from Italy. “Maybe they decided to do a new tactic not to stop him just with an arrest but to stop him with poison. It looks like a new tactic against Navalny.”

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a tweet that he was “deeply concerned” by the reports of suspected poisoning. In 2018, Russian agents were implicated in the poisoning of another former spy, Sergei V. Skripal, and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury. They both survived the alleged assassination attempt.

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Like many other opposition politicians in Russia, Navalny has been frequently detained by law enforcement and harassed by pro-Kremlin groups. In 2017, he was attacked by several men who threw antiseptic in his face, damaging one of his eyes.

Last year, Navalny was rushed to a hospital from prison — where he was serving a sentence following an administrative arrest — with what his team said was suspected poisoning. Doctors then said he had a severe allergic attack and discharged him back to prison the following day.

Navalny’s Foundation for Fighting Corruption has been exposing graft among government officials, including some at the highest level. Last month, he had to shut down the foundation after a financially devastating lawsuit from Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to the Kremlin.

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The most prominent member of Russia’s opposition, Navalny campaigned to challenge Putin in the 2018 presidential election, but was barred from running.

Election officials say a majority of voters have approved amendments to Russia’s constitution, allowing President Putin to stay in power until 2036.

He set up a network of campaign offices across Russia and has since been promoting opposition candidates in regional elections, challenging members of Russia’s ruling party, United Russia. One of his associates in Khabarovsk, a city in Russia’s far east that has been engulfed in mass protests over the arrest of the region’s governor, was detained last week after calling for a strike at a rally.

In the interview with Echo Moskvy, Yarmysh said she believed the suspected poisoning was connected to this year’s regional election campaign.

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Vyacheslav Gimadi, a lawyer with Navalny’s foundation, said the team has requested that Russia’s Investigative Committee open a criminal probe. “There is no doubt that Navalny was poisoned because of his political stance and activity,” Gimadi said in a tweet.

Analysts say Navalny has become increasingly dangerous for the Kremlin as Putin’s approval has plummeted this year to a record low of about 60% amid the COVID-19 pandemic and growing public frustration with the declining economy.

As EU rejects Belarus election result, the country’s beleaguered president looks to Moscow for backing.

Navalny’s ability to mobilize voters against pro-Kremlin candidates poses a particular challenge ahead of the 2021 parliamentary elections, said Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter.

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“The Duma elections are particularly important for the Kremlin,” as the new Duma will be operating in 2024, when Putin’s current presidential term expires and he may announce running for reelection, Gallyamov said. “That’s why controlling the next State Duma is crucially important for the Kremlin. Navalny really makes it harder for the Kremlin to establish that control.”

At the same time, Navalny, who rose to prominence by exposing corruption all over Russia, could have other enemies, Gallyamov said, and may have been targeted by people featured in one of his investigations, if he was indeed deliberately poisoned.

Navalny is not the first opposition figure to come down with a mysterious poisoning.

In 2018, Verzilov of Pussy Riot spent a month in a hospital, recovering from a suspected poisoning by an unknown substance. He said that Navalny’s initial symptoms — loss of coordination, pain, fainting — were very similar to his.

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Opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza was hospitalized with poisoning symptoms twice, in 2015 and 2017. Prominent journalist Anna Politkovskaya was also reportedly poisoned in 2004, two years before being murdered.


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