Kremlin critic Navalny ‘too ill to be moved’ from Russian hospital after suspected poisoning

Doctors treating Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny in a Siberian hospital said on Friday the politician’s condition had improved a little, but that it was still unstable and that attempting to move him could pose a risk to his life.

Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, is fighting for his life after drinking tea that his allies believe was laced with poison. Doctors treating him, at a hospital in the Siberian city of Omsk, have not yet confirmed that diagnosis, but said it is one of several versions they are considering.

A protester holds a portrait of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Saint Petersburg on August 20, 2020.
A protester holds a portrait of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Saint Petersburg on August 20, 2020. © Olga Matseva, AFP

Kira Yarmysh, his spokeswoman, said doctors are refusing to allow Navalny to be moved to another better-equipped facility. A German air ambulance with a team specialised in treating coma patients was due to land in Omsk on Friday, she said.

“The ban on transporting Navalny is an attempt on his life being carried out right now by doctors and the deceitful authorities that have authorised it,” Yarmysh wrote on social media. 

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 rushed to hospital after the plane made an emergency landing in Omsk, Yarmysh said on social media. 

She told the Echo Moskvy radio station that Navalny 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 Yarmysh to talk to him so that he could “focus on the sound of a voice”. He then went to the bathroom and lost consciousness. 

Doctors gave contradictory information about Navalny’s condition, saying it had stabilised and that he was in a coma, but also that there was still a threat to his life and they were working to save him.

Russia expert ‘firmly believes it was a poisoning’155000

On Friday, Alexander Murakhovsky, the hospital’s head doctor, said there were five possible diagnoses of Navalny’s condition and that test results would be available within two days. He declined to answer the question of whether Navalny had been poisoned.

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.

State news agency Tass reported that police were not considering deliberate poisoning, a statement the politician’s allies dismissed. 

Macron, Merkel offer help

Reports about the alleged poisoning made waves in the West. French President Emmanuel Macron said France was ready to offer Navalny and his family “all necessary assistance … in terms of health care, asylum, protection” and insisted on the need to clarify what happened.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking at a joint news conference with Macron, echoed his sentiment. “Obviously Germany will let him have all the medical help that is needed also in German hospitals,” Merkel said. 

“What is also very important is that it will be clarified very urgently how it could come to the situation.” 

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and the United Nations also expressed concern over what happened to Navalny, and Amnesty International demanded a full and thorough investigation. 

The widow of Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian agent who was killed in London by radioactive poisoning in 2006, voiced concern that Navalny’s enemies within Russia may have decided it was time to use a “new tactic”.

“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,” Marina Litvinenko told AP from Sicily, Italy. 

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 an eye. 

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 said then that 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 the foundation after a financially devastating lawsuit from Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to the Kremlin. 

Falling approval ratings for Putin

Navalny campaigned to challenge Putin in the 2018 presidential election but was barred from running. 

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 against 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. 

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. 

Commentators say Navalny has become increasingly dangerous for the Kremlin as Putin’s approval has plummeted this year to a record low of around 60 percent amid the coronavirus pandemic and growing public frustration with the declining economy. 

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

“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 re-election, Gallyamov told AP. 

“Imagine if now the parliament in Belarus announced not recognising election results,” Gallyamov said. “This would be the end of the regime.” 

“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,” Gallyamov added.

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.

(FRANCE 24, AP and REUTERS)

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