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20 August 2020

Alexei Navalny: who is the “poisoned” Russian opposition leader?

Navalny has long been considered one of the bravest men in Russia, continuing his activism even in the face of chemical attacks.  

By Ido Vock

Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, is in a coma in a Siberian hospital after he fell unwell and a plane he was on was forced to make an emergency landing. Kira Yarmysh, his press secretary, tweeted that his team is assuming he was poisoned with something slipped into his tea.

Videos from the plane appear to show a man moaning in pain as medical personnel rush aboard. Hospital officials say that his condition is stable, according to the Guardian.

Forty-four-year-old Navalny, the most prominent critic of the Kremlin in Russia, has been the subject of several chemical attacks in the past. Last year he was hospitalised after suffering a severe allergic reaction. His doctor said at the time that he could have been poisoned. In 2017 he was also attacked with so-called “brilliant green,” a chemical which stains the skin and has been linked to assaults on anti-Kremlin politicians.

The founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, Navalny attracted the ire of several figures close to Putin for his films exposing the alleged corruption of high-up officials, such as former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev. Last year, the ACF was added to the Russian justice ministry’s list of “foreign agents”. Several of Navalny’s recent videos have focused on Belarus, drawing parallels between the country’s response to its presidential vote, widely thought to be rigged, and how President Vladimir Putin might react to potential protests against his ongoing rule in 2024, when he would be able to seek re-election.

Tatiana Stanovaya, an expert at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, wrote on her Telegram channel that she thinks it extremely unlikely that Navalny’s alleged poisoning was ordered by the Kremlin. “Some years ago I was told that Navalny’s murder was seen in the Kremlin as a kind of nightmare scenario one that would be seen as a dangerous provocation that would spark protests.” She added that attempting to kill Navalny would be an irrational step for Putin. More likely, she said, was that someone named in Navalny’s reports or a powerful figure close to the regime had ordered the alleged attack.

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Navalny has long been considered one of the bravest men in Russia, continuing his activism even in the face of chemical attacks, harassment by the authorities and repeated spells in prison. Even if responsibility for his latest misfortune cannot yet be attributed, it reinforces the idea that genuine opposition is dangerous business in Russia.