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The Week In Russia: Belarus, Breathing, And The 'Berlin Patient'


Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny and his family members pose for a picture at the Charite hospital in Berlin on September 15.

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The year 2020 has been all about breathing, it sometimes seems: the life-or-death question of whether one can breathe or has been deprived of the ability to do so.

This week, Aleksei Navalny reported that he can breathe on his own again, without a ventilator, almost a month after the anti-corruption crusader and opposition politician fell gravely ill on a flight to Moscow from the Siberian city of Tomsk, where he had been rallying supporters and pressing his “smart voting” initiative -- under which voters are urged to cast their ballots in a way that will undermine the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party’s results -- ahead of regional elections this month.

Navalny made the announcement about his improved condition from a hospital bed in Berlin, where he was flown -- after a few days of wrangling between his relatives and associates and the Russian state -- after first being hospitalized in another Siberian city, Omsk, where the plane had made an emergency landing.

“Hi, it’s Navalny. I miss you,” he wrote in a September 15 post on his Instagram page, adding a heart-eyed emoji along with a photo showing him sitting up in bed -- sort of -- in a hospital gown. “I still can hardly do anything, but yesterday I was able to breathe on my own all day. All by myself.”

German authorities say tests show that Navalny was poisoned with a toxin from the Novichok group, a potentially lethal series of substances that was originally developed in the Soviet era -- but with one that may have been much more potent than the version that British authorities say left former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter semi-conscious on a bench in Salisbury, England, in March 2018, and also killed a British woman who apparently came in contact with the poison by chance.

Laboratories in France and Sweden also found that a Novichok-group nerve agent was the cause of Navalny’s poisoning, the German government said on September 14.

Airport Tea, Hotel Water

Suspicions about exactly where Navalny was poisoned initially focused on tea that he bought at an airport cafe before boarding the Moscow flight on August 20. But Navalny’s associates said this week that the source was a plastic water bottle he drank from at a hotel in Tomsk.

The finding that Novichok was the cause makes it very likely that the Russian state was behind it, experts said, but as evidence mounted President Vladimir Putin’s government continued to deny involvement -- an echo, as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov inadvertently suggested when he compared the situation surrounding Navalny to the Skripal poisoning and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over the war zone in Ukraine in 2014, of the back-and-forth over blame for other incidents in which evidence has pointed to Moscow.

Meanwhile, Russian officials and diplomats have come up with some arguments about “the Berlin patient” -- as a Kremlin that takes pains to avoid uttering Navalny’s name has referred to him at times since his medical evacuation -- that seem to have few in the West convinced.

The Kremlin’s main argument seems to be that the Russian state would have no motive to kill Navalny because polls say he is not popular enough to pose a threat to Putin.

In a September 16 post, the Russian mission to the European Union claimed that Moscow was the target of a “rapidly growing information campaign” over Navalny’s illness and listed what it said were nine “inconsistencies” in what authorities in Europe have been saying about it.

Citing a July poll by the independent Levada Center, the mission asked why the Russian authorities would poison Navalny, “taking into account that his actual popularity level hardly reaches 2 percent.”

The opinion survey actually gauged trust, not popularity, and Navalny’s rating later increased to 4 percent -- while Putin’s rose from 23 percent in July to 33 percent.

But in any case, that kind of argument has seeming flaws, both in terms of content and the message it potentially sends about the Kremlin’s methods.

'Maybe The Goal Was Not To Kill Him'

While Novichok can be deadly, the severity of the effects depends on the dose or level of exposure -- and Vil Mirzayanov, a chemist who was one of its developers in the Soviet era, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service earlier in September that Navalny could have received a nonlethal dose.

“Maybe the goal was not to kill him but to put him out of commission and leave him disabled,” he said.

Such an aim might fit in with the ways Navalny and his backers say the Russian state has sought to sideline him without putting him entirely out of commission -- a level of restraint they contend stems from concerns that killing him or handing him a long prison term in a politically charged case would risk a powerful backlash.

Navalny sought to challenge Putin for the presidency in 2018 but was barred from the ballot on the basis of financial-crimes convictions in cases he asserts were fabricated to keep him out of electoral politics. He has spent hundeds of days in jail for alleged administrative violations, mostly involving street protests, but was given suspended sentences in both criminal cases.

Navalny's Team Say He Was Poisoned In Hotel Room, Not At Airport
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As for the optics, longtime Moscow correspondent Marc Bennetts pointed out that saying one would have no reason to target a rival seen as low-risk could have an unfortunate implication.

“Do they realize how bad this sounds? I.e. We only target people with higher approval ratings?” he wrote.

The Russian mission’s argument also echoed what many saw as an almost unfathomably callous remark that Putin made after the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist who, like Navalny, sought to expose Russian government corruption, and who survived an apparent poisoning but was shot dead in her Moscow apartment building in October 2006.

Denying Kremlin involvement in her killing, Putin said that Politkovskaya’s “death in itself is more damaging to the current authorities…than her activities." In other words, the blow to Russia’s image from the killing posed more of a threat to the Kremlin than the revelations about graft and rights violations that she uncovered.

The pace and extent of Navalny’s recovery is uncertain, and so is the depth of the damage his poisoning will end up doing to Russia’s ties with the West.

There are calls for new European Union sanctions, the fate of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany hangs in the balance, and analyst Dmitry Trenin says that Navalny’s poisoning “has become a turning point” in ties between Russia and Germany -- a relationship that Putin has cultivated assiduously over his years in power.

The incident “has prompted Berlin to make a crucial decision for German foreign policy: it will no longer follow a special policy toward Russia,” Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in an article published on September 16. “Berlin will not try to understand the other side’s motivation or strive for mutual understanding and at least basic cooperation. Nor will it act as an interpreter of Russian political language, or take it upon itself to communicate the position of its allies to Moscow.”

“The collapse of the special relationship between Russia and Germany is the latest and most serious in a series of blows to Russia’s position in Europe,” he added.

Do The Right Thing

Among the German people, Putin’s star has faded a great deal since his first term in office. According to Pew Research polling, their confidence in Putin to do the right thing when it comes to international affairs has dropped from 75 percent in 2003 to 31 percent earlier this summer -- before Navalny’s poisoning.

The result for Germany was the second highest out of 13 countries Pew listed, most of them in Western Europe but also including Australia, Canada, Japan, and South Korea. The median was about 24 percent.

Turning back to Navalny, the anti-corruption crusader scored some small victories in September 11-13 Russian regional elections that were largely swept by the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party amid widespread claims of violations and concerns that a new law allowing elections to be held over three days fuels fraud.

The three-day rule was swiftly approved after a nationwide vote in which Putin secured the right to seek reelection in 2024 and again in 2030 was stretched out over a week ending July 1, with the need to avoid crowding polling places amid the COVID-19 pandemic cited as the formal reason, and the Kremlin apparently liked what it saw.

The regional balloting was seen as a test run ahead of the 2021 election of the State Duma, the lower parliament house, which in turn is seen as setting the stage for 2024 -- and for Putin’s decision, or the announcement of his decision, on whether he will in fact run for a fifth presidential term.

The Duma elections are expected to be held in September -- or they were, until statements by the top electoral official and Putin’s spokesman confirmed widespread suspicions that the state is considering holding them earlier -- a change that would reinforce the views of critics who charge that over Putin’s 20-plus years in power, elections have increasingly been engineered to impose the will of the Kremlin rather than reflecting the will of the people.

While asserting that it would somehow not mean “early elections,” Central Election Commission chief Ella Pamfilova suggested that the Duma vote could be held during a school vacation in April, rather than in September, in order to avoid inconveniencing pupils, teachers, and administrators whose schools are used as polling places -- a problem that did not exist before the three-day vote law because elections were held on Sundays.

When Putin opened the path to two more six-year terms, some observers assumed that meant he will do so, or at least that he will run again in 2024. Others believe he may not have decided yet, and is keeping open as many options for retaining power as possible.

Weeks of upheaval in Belarus, where the Kremlin has helped long-ruling authoritarian Alyaksandr Lukashenka hold onto power amid unflagging protests over what millions believe was a rigged election that handed him a new term, may have revived Putin’s interest in one of those options, if that interest ever faded: the idea of leading a more closely integrated “union state” linking Russia and Belarus.

'Putin's Main Goal'

At their first face-to-face meeting since the disputed August 9 election, Putin threw Lukashenka a $1.5 billion life preserver -- potentially increasing Moscow’s already substantial leverage over Minsk and strengthening its ability to shape developments in Belarus amid increasing isolation by the West amid a police crackdown that has generated many allegations of abuse and torture.

“Putin’s main goal is to become the head of a unified state [comprising Russia and Belarus] in 2024,” Kremlin critic and former Duma lawmaker Ilya Ponomaryov told Current Time, a Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, in comments on the September 14 Putin-Lukashenka meeting in the Russian Black Sea resort city of Sochi.

Any such effort by Putin would deepen dismay in the West and could face powerful opposition from the Belarusian people, whom he already risks alienating by backing Lukashenka and his clampdown.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been promised $1.5 billion by Russia.
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been promised $1.5 billion by Russia.

“Kremlin support for the unpopular Lukashenka risks fueling anti-Russian sentiment in one of the few remaining countries where a clear majority still favors close ties with Moscow,” Hanna Liubakova, a nonresident fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank, wrote in a September 16 article.

With protests persisting in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, and their focus gradually shifting from anger over the arrest of the regional governor to criticism of Putin’s long rule, the Kremlin may also need to be mindful of the mood of the Russian people as it seeks to increase control in Belarus and maintain it at home.

“For Moscow, the most important task right now in Europe is not to lose Belarus as it so incompetently lost Ukraine; not to allow Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko to take Putin for a ride; and to make sure Putin does not miscalculate the Belarusian people -- or, for that matter, the Russian people either,” Trenin wrote.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. He has lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union off and on -- mostly on -- since 1989, including postings in Moscow with the Associated Press and Reuters.

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