https://www.rferl.org-Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny
MOSCOW — Russian authorities are brushing off mounting evidence Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was deliberately poisoned, dismissing calls for a criminal probe and instead bizarrely trying to point the finger at a vast Western conspiracy.
The 44-year-old anticorruption campaigner and staunch opponent of President Vladimir Putin is being treated at Berlin’s Charite hospital after falling gravely ill on a flight in Siberia last week.
The world-renowned German hospital said on August 24 that extensive clinical tests indicated Navalny was “poisoned.” The Kremlin-critic remains in an intensive care unit and is still in an induced coma.
In a statement, the hospital said that “clinical findings indicate intoxication by a substance from the group of active substances called cholinesterase inhibitors.”
Cholinesterase inhibitors, also known as anti-cholinesterase, are a broad range of chemicals that are found in several drugs but also in some pesticides and nerve agents. Charite said the specific substance to which Navalny was exposed isn’t yet known but that a further series of comprehensive tests had been started.
In the wake of the findings, Western countries are piling pressure on Russia to investigate Navalny’s suspected poisoning and hold the perpetrators accountable.
Navalny’s supporters say they believe he was poisoned when he drank tea purchased at the Tomsk airport in Siberia. His illness forced the plane he was traveling on to make an emergency landing in Omsk, where he spent two days in a hospital before being airlifted to Berlin’s Charite hospital.
But Russia is insisting that Navalny wasn’t necessarily the victim of a deliberate poisoning, a position that is being amplified by Russian doctors and pro-Kremlin media.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on August 25 that any accusations against the government or Putin “absolutely cannot be true and are rather an empty noise.”
“We do not intend to take it seriously,” Peskov said.
Peskov said it was unclear to the Kremlin why the German doctors were “rushing” to use the word poisoning, adding that Navalny’s condition could have been triggered by a variety of causes.
“There must be a reason for an investigation. For the moment, all you and I see is that the patient is in a coma,” Peskov told reporters.
“If the substance is identified and if it is determined that it is poisoning, then, of course, this will be a reason for investigation,” Peskov said.
Meanwhile, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, announced that one of its committees will probe whether “foreign states” were behind the alleged poisoning.
“The State Duma security committee will be instructed to analyze what happened in order to understand whether this was an attempt on the part of foreign states to harm the health of a Russian citizen to fuel tensions inside Russia, as well as to formulate fresh accusations against our country,” Vyacheslav Volodin said in a statement.
Kira Yarmysh, Navalny’s spokeswoman, retorted that Russian officials appear to have a “special training manual” to blame foreign interference.
“It doesn’t matter at all whether it sounds just absurd or completely schizophrenic,” she wrote on Twitter.
“It was obvious that the crime would not be properly investigated and the criminal found, though we know very well who did it,” she wrote in another tweet. “But the particular way Peskov talks about this makes me rage.”
Russian doctors who treated Navalny have also contradicted their German colleagues’ statement.
The head of Moscow’s Bureau of Forensic Medicine, Sergei Shigeyev, said on August 25 that Germany did not appear to have enough evidence to claim that Navalny had been poisoned.
Shigeyev said it was “premature” to come to that conclusion without identifying a specific poison, according to comments carried by Russian state news agency TASS.
“Cholinesterase activity varies significantly among different people, particularly due to certain chronic diseases,” Shigeyev said.
The management of the Omsk hospital said it will look into why the results of their tests differ from German test results, while denying that medical personnel there had come under outside pressure from authorities.
“We treated the patient and we saved him. There was no interference in the treatment of the patient and there could not be any,” Aleksandr Murakhovsky, the head doctor at Omsk Emergency Hospital No. 1, said on August 24.
According to a Russian newspaper report, Navalny had been under surveillance by Russian federal security agents during his recent trip to Siberia that preceding his illness.
The United States and European countries have called Russia to conduct a swift investigation into the suspected poisoning.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said August 25 that the United States is “deeply concerned” about preliminary findings that Navalny was poisoned.
“If the reports prove accurate, the United States supports the EU’s call for a comprehensive investigation and stands ready to assist in that effort,” he said in a statement.
The French Foreign Ministry said that those responsible for “this criminal act” must be identified and brought to justice.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell have issued similar pleas.
In Moscow, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other diplomats on August 25.
The No. 2 U.S. diplomat expressed deep concern about Navalny’s condition, “the impact on Russian civil society of reports of his poisoning, and the importance of transparency and freedom of speech in any democratic society,” the U.S. Embassy spokesperson, Rebecca Ross, said on Twitter.
After the meeting, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Biegun issued a sharp warning that if Navalny’s poisoning was confirmed, the United States could take steps that will exceed Washington’s response to evidence of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The ministry said Russian diplomats warned Biegun against making unfounded accusations and noted that Russian authorities stand for a “thorough and maximally objective investigation of what happened.”
It pointed to a “suspicious haste” with which Western capitals talked about Navalny’s deliberate poisoning, saying it raised a question of “who profits from it.”
“The Russian leadership definitely doesn’t,” the ministry said.
Navalny, who has exposed rampant corruption at the highest levels in Russia, has suffered physical attacks in the past.
He endured chemical burns to one of his eyes in 2017 after he was assaulted with antiseptic dye.
In July 2019, Navalny was given a 30-day jail term after calling for unauthorized protests. During that jail sentence, he was taken to a hospital with severe swelling of the face and a rash, and later alleged he was poisoned.
He has been jailed several times in recent years, barred from running for president, and had a bid to run for Moscow mayor blocked.
If further confirmed, his poisoning would be the latest in a long line of Kremlin opponents to fall seriously ill or die from poisoning.