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Kremlin Critic Aleksei Navalny's Hospitalization Prompts Question: Another Political Poisoning?

A protester in the Siberian city of Omsk holds a sign asking whether anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny will join a list of Russians (politician Boris Nemtsov, journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and politician Galina Starovoitova) believed murdered for political reasons.
A protester in the Siberian city of Omsk holds a sign asking whether anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny will join a list of Russians (politician Boris Nemtsov, journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and politician Galina Starovoitova) believed murdered for political reasons.

The sudden hospitalization of outspoken Kremlin critic and anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny has again raised allegations of a politically motivated poisoning in Russia. But this time, however, associates of Navalny are looking to the Kremlin, the frequent target of such allegations, for help in securing Western medical assistance.

The 44-year-old Navalny, currently hospitalized and in a coma in the Siberian city of Omsk, passed out early on August 20 while on a flight to Moscow. His colleagues and supporters charge that he is the victim of a poisoning attack.

Omsk Emergency Hospital No. 1, which is treating Navalny, has not stated that any traces of poisoning were found in his samples. He is attached to a respirator, and in critical, but stable condition, according to the region’s health officials.

Responding to the anti-corruption campaigner’s condition, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that if the “final analyses” done on Navalny indicate poisoning, a criminal investigation would be opened. He also promised that the Kremlin would assist, if asked, with a medical evacuation.

Citing alleged stonewalling by the Omsk hospital, Navalny’s team is now ready to take Peskov up on that offer, according to the activist’s personal physician, Anastasia Vasilyeva.

The Kremlin does not yet appear to have responded.

Moscow cardiologist and therapist Yarsolav Ashikhmin, another personal Navalny physician, earlier told the Russian news site Meduza that attempts are being made to transfer Navalny to a hospital in either the German city of Hannover or the French city of Strasbourg.

While at least one Moscow clinic, the Sklifosovsky Institute, could provide adequate care, Western clinics, Ashikhmin underlined twice, would be better equipped to identify any potential “concrete [poisoning] agent.”

As yet, nothing suggests that the Omsk hospital is preparing Navalny for a medical evacuation. Vasiliyeva charged that it has denied Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, colleague Ivan Zhdanov, and her any documentation needed for the opposition politician’s removal to a European hospital.

Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, earlier complained that the hospital, citing a lack of documentary proof of their relationship with the patient or permission for their presence, also refused to allow the three to enter the activist’s room.

Federal Security Service and local security-forces officers were spotted on the hospital's territory this morning, local blogger Vladidmir Lifantyev told Current Time.

The Omsk hospital does not appear to have responded to this criticism. At a morning press briefing, deputy chief physician, Anatoly Kalinichenko commented that doctors are fighting for Navalny’s life.

While poisoning is one of the explanations under consideration for Navalny’s collapse, he told local site NGS55 that there is “no certainty” that it is the chief cause of his condition.

Kalinichenko later stated that COVID-19, a stroke, and a heart attack have been eliminated as possible diagnoses. He did not elaborate further.

Navalny was returning to Moscow from Tomsk, which he had been visiting ahead of the Tomsk Oblast’s September 13 by-election for the State Duma. The activist, who had been filming in the city, told journalists on August 18 that he would shortly release information about his work there, the local edition of the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets reported.

Navalny, though, began to feel poorly after his S7 flight took off from Tomsk en route to Moscow early on August 20.

Spokeswoman Yarmysh, who was traveling with him, stated that Navalny was perspiring and asked her for a tissue. He requested her to keep talking to him “to concentrate on the sound of the voice,” she added.

Navalny then went to the plane’s restroom, where he passed out.

An Instagram video posted by a fellow passenger shows flight staff with apparent medical equipment going to the back of the plane. Sounds of a man loudly groaning can be heard in the background.

The plane landed in Omsk, four hours west of Tomsk, for Navalny to receive medical attention. A video filmed by another passenger shows ambulance personnel collecting the unconscious activist.

The S7 airline stated that Navalny had not eaten or drunk anything on board the flight.

A photograph posted on Instagram by the same fellow passenger shows Navalny earlier drinking something out of a paper cup at an eatery later identified as the Tomsk airport’s Venskaya Kofeynya café. The cafе reportedly has since been closed.

For many Russians, even without a confirmed diagnosis, poisoning in some form accounts for what happened to Navalny on the flight, noted political analyst Abbas Gallyamov.

“The political atmosphere that [the Kremlin] has created in Russia compels citizens … not to exclude that it is poisoning, “Gallyamov said, referring to a lack of tolerance for political or media criticism.

Given “the general lack of trust in the system,” he added, the Kremlin will find it “difficult to prove” another diagnosis, such as a stroke, even if accurate.

Political analyst Aleksandr Morozov is among those who do not question a potential politically motivated poisoning. He cited medical evidence for the past poisoning of two other Kremlin critics: the late ex-Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar in 2006 and activist Vladimir Kara-Murza in 2017 and 2018.

The Kremlin has never acknowledged any role in these alleged poisonings or those of former Federal Security Service officer Aleksandr Litvinenko in 2006 and ex-military-intelligence-officer-turned-double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in 2018.

Some observers believe that, in Navalny’s case, the responsibility lies elsewhere.

“The person who ordered Navalny's poisoning is definitely not the government, but a certain individual,” commented blogger Aleksei Filatov, chairman of a group of veterans of the Federal Security Service’s Alpha counter-terrorism unit. “And this is not an action agreed with anyone. Someone just decided that ‘he has the right.’”

Morozov, who believes Navalny is under constant “observation” by the Russian security services, similarly cautions that “we can’t head in a certain direction” for any potential culprit.

Navalny has “a lot of enemies in the establishment that he criticizes rather harshly,” he said.

After a devastating 88-million-ruble ($1.2 million) lawsuit from one company thought to be run by influential Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, for instance, Navalny was compelled this July to close his Anti-Corruption Foundation, which has run several investigations targeting high-profile officials.

Pyotr Verzilov, the 33-year-old publisher of the independent Russian news outlet MediaZona, insists, though, that Russia’s special services poisoned the politician, as, he alleged, they have others -- yet “we never know” for what purpose, he said.

In 2018, Verzilov suddenly became critically ill while investigating the deaths of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic. The German doctors who treated him in Berlin agreed that poisoning likely caused his condition.

Verzilov, however, doubts that any official investigation or medical examination in Russia will confirm that Navalny was poisoned.

After two years, he added, his own case has been “checked,” but not investigated. “The task is not to investigate, and not even to create the appearance that such an investigation is underway,” Verzilov charged.

Insisting that Navalny was poisoned because of his “political position and activity,” colleague Vyacheslav Gimadi, has tweeted that the lawyers for Navalny’s shuttered Anti-Corruption Foundation will demand that the Russian government investigate this incident as “an attempt on the life of a state or public figure” with the aim of ending his work.

Navalny’s own past furthers those claims, his supporters believe.

In July 2019, while serving a 30-day prison term for organizing unauthorized protests, the activist suffered from a severe facial rash and swelling that his doctor, Anastasia Vasiliyeva, believed suggested poisoning. An outside physician found no such evidence, however.

Prison officials instead attributed the episode to a "severe allergic reaction,” although Navalny was not known to suffer from any allergies.

Before that, in the spring of 2017, an unknown assailant threw a green chemical solution into Navalny’s face, causing a burn in his right cornea. Navalny, then an aspiring presidential candidate, claimed that he lost most of the vision in that eye. Doctors in Spain later operated on the eye to restore the vision.

Kremlin spokesman Peskov has wished Navalny, "like any other citizen," a speedy recovery from this latest medical emergency, but for political analyst Morozov, the incident only emphasizes that nothing has changed for the better.

In Russia, he noted, “it’s possible to do everything, and, in any case, as much is done as possible.”