Alexei Navalny, the most popular opponent to Russian President Vladimir Putin, was unconscious under ventilation in a Siberian hospital after being poisoned, his spokesperson alleged on Thursday. Navalny was flying from Tomsk to Moscow, and his plane had to make an emergency landing in nearby Omsk shortly after takeoff.
– “We assume that Alexei was poisoned with something mixed in his tea; it was the only thing he drank all morning,” spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh tweeted. A doctor at the Omsk hospital confirmed that Navalny was in a “serious condition.” A Kremlin spokesman later told the Tass news agency that Russian law enforcement would launch an investigation “if poisoning took place.”
– A lawyer by training and a hugely popular blogger, Navalny did several stints in jail for having taken part in demonstrations against the Putin regime in the last 10 years. He built a massive following with his investigations of corruption among high-level government officials, and was banned from running in the 2018 Russian presidential elections.
– Russia is due to hold nationwide local elections, when voters will notably choose their regions’ governors, on September 13.
– Several opponents to Putin have been poisoned, murdered or died in suspicious circumstances over the years, such as journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 or former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov in 2015. The U.K. government has also accused the Kremlin of trying to poison former KGB agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, in 2018. Moscow has always denied involvement in those deaths or incidents.
The outlook: If confirmed, Navalny’s poisoning will weigh on the talks between Putin and European leaders over the situation in Belarus, where protesters keep demanding the cancellation of the August 9 presidential elections that gave strong man Alexander Lukashenko a new term in office. Public opinion uproar in Europe would make it more difficult for European Union governments to reach a deal with Putin on the matter.
As often, it is hard to understand why the Kremlin would go to such lengths against its opponents, especially a few weeks after Putin won a constitutional referendum to allow him to rule until 2036.