Poisoned Navalny plots his return, but Russia's opposition activists wonder who might be next
Posted September 18, 2020 4:46 a.m. EDT
CNN — Alexey Navalny is out of a coma and off a ventilator, just weeks after his near-fatal poisoning. Now the Kremlin critic is planning his return home to Russia, where his list of enemies is as long as it is powerful.
Navalny is being treated at Berlin's Charite Hospital, after becoming gravely unwell on a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk to Moscow on August 20.
The German government says tests prove he was poisoned with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok. The Kremlin has strongly denied any involvement, but questions remain.
It's not just Navalny who has been under attack.
Just one day after he emerged from his medically-induced coma, at least three volunteers linked to his team were targeted at their office in Novosibirsk, Siberia.
Two masked men were recorded by security cameras, bursting in to the office of "Coalition Novosibirsk 2020," which is also headquarters of Navalny's local team.
One of them threw a bottle containing an unknown yellow liquid -- described to CNN as a "pungent chemical", "unbearable" by witnesses -- at volunteers who were there for a lecture about the upcoming local elections, before running off.
The Kremlin has denied having anything to do with the attacks, but analysts are skeptical.
"Russia has a track record of sudden deaths among the Kremlin's critics: Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko and Boris Nemtsov, to name but a few," says longtime Russia analyst Valeriy Akimenko from the Conflict Studies Research Centre, an independent research group. "If this wasn't a murder plot or assassination attempt, it was an act of intimidation."
Which raises an important question: How much immediate danger is Navalny in, if and when he does return to Russia?
"I don't think the words safety or security apply to anyone who is opposition in Russia," says Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian opposition politician and chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, who has been poisoned twice in the past five years.
"I can have as much protection as I like, but I have to touch doorknobs and breathe air," he says. "The only real precautionary measure I've been able to take is to get my family out of the country."
The Kremlin has denied any involvement in either of the attacks on Kara-Murza, though his wife has directly accused the Russian government of bearing responsibility.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle has also denied any involvement in Navalny's poisoning, but Akimenko points out that the language coming from the Kremlin in the weeks since has hardly been reassuring, given the near-death of a prominent politician.
"Just look at what's been coming out of Russia," he says. "Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying no need for Putin to meet Navalny; Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov saying no legal grounds for a criminal inquiry; Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin talking instead about an investigation into possible foreign provocation; and on state TV, ceaseless attempts to muddy the waters by blaming anyone but the Russian state."
As if being an outspoken opponent of the government wasn't enough of a risk for Navalny, other Putin critics believe that what is being seen as a failed assassination attempt, in order to scare opponents, might have backfired.
"Now that Alexey Navalny has survived, this may prove to be a spectacular miscalculation that only empowers the opposition and Navalny," says Bill Browder, a prominent financier who became a thorn in the side of Putin after leading the push for a US sanctions act named after Browder's lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who died under suspicious circumstances in a Russian prison.
Kara-Murza points out that in the very area of Siberia where the campaign office attack took place, Navalny's allies made gains against Putin's ruling United Russia in elections this past weekend.
"When Russians have a real choice, they are very happy to demonstrate how sick they are of Putin's one-man rule," he told CNN.
Whenever he does return to Russia, the risk both to him and his supporters is likely to remain very high; has this affected the opposition's morale?
"Putin rules by symbolism," says Browder. "To take the most popular opposition politician and poison him with a deadly nerve agent is intended to scare the less popular ones into submission."
So, will it work?
Kara-Murza says the Putin critic Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated near the Kremlin in February 2015, just days before he was due to take part in an anti-government protest in Moscow, used to tell his allies: "We must do what we must and come what may. Of course, we understand the dangers, but we are determined, not scared."
And while Akimenko says: "If Russia's opposition leaders aren't worried, they should be," he adds that: "They have been fearless in the face of both personal physical attacks against Navalny and persecution disguised as prosecution."
The Navalny episode revealed the dangers of political opposition in Russia to the world.
But for those actively involved in that fight, it has merely underscored the threat they already knew existed, says Kara-Murza
"I was poisoned twice," he said. "Both times I was in [a] coma. Both times doctors told my wife I had 5% change of living. Boris Nemtsov had 0% when he was shot in the back. But it's not about safety; it's about doing the right thing for our country. It would be too much of a gift to the Kremlin if those of us who stand in opposition gave up and ran."
CNN's Mary Ilyushina contributed to this report from Moscow