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Alexei Navalny and the poisonous fate of Putin's nemese...

World

DEMOCRACY, RUSSIAN STYLE

Alexei Navalny and the poisonous fate of Putin’s nemeses

Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny (C) takes part in a memorial march for Boris Nemtsov marking the fifth anniversary of his assassination in Moscow, Russia, 29 February 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE/YURI KOCHETKOV)

Was Alexei Navalny poisoned because he was a rising opposition star? Or is that just a false accusation intended to embarrass Vladimir Putin?

Why would Russian President Vladimir Putin feel so threatened by opposition politician Alexei Navalny that he would have him poisoned with the deadly nerve agent Novichok — when Navalny enjoys only 4% support among Russian people vs Putin’s 59%?

This question, which Russia’s ambassador to South Africa Ilya Rogachev asked in September in an oped in the Pretoria News is pertinent, in part because the Levada Center which conducted the opinion poll that produced those results is considered independent and credible, even in the West. 

However the answer, according to some Western analysts, is that Putin is a far-thinking political strategist who pre-emptively eliminates threats before they grow too large to handle.

They recall that Boris Nemtsov, who was then considered Putin’s main political opponent, was shot dead by assassins on a bridge near the Kremlin in Moscow on 27 February 2015 at a time when he too enjoyed about the same popular support as Navalny today. Like Navalny, Nemtsov was a prominent, fierce and vocal critic of Putin’s government – a rising star, outspoken and daring in exposing corruption in high places. 

Navalny, 44, who effectively replaced Nemtsov as Putin’s nemesis, was flying from the Siberian city of Tomsk on 20 August 2020 on a scheduled flight back to Moscow after producing an election campaign video when he collapsed on the aircraft, screaming in agony. The pilot made an emergency landing in the city of Omsk where Navalny was rushed to hospital.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel intervened and he was flown on a German ambulance plane to Berlin and then taken to the Charité hospital and treated for several weeks before being discharged on 23 September. He is still recuperating in Berlin, but says he intends to return to Russia to continue his opposition work.

Meanwhile German, French and Swedish specialised laboratories as well as the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague — which is responsible for implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention — have unanimously stated that their tests prove Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. Only the Russian state could have had access to Novichok, though it claims it destroyed all stocks of it years ago.

Navalny told the German newspaper Der Spiegel International that only Putin could have ordered the poisoning. He said he believed he absorbed the Novichok through his skin from a surface in his hotel room in Tomsk.

Germany has several times demanded an explanation from Moscow on what happened to Navalny, with no response. In his article in the Pretoria News, Rogachev conversely complained that Germany had refused to cooperate with Russia in investigating the incident. Western officials say that is a “smokescreen”. 

“Russia had all the information they needed to open a criminal case, but didn’t. And Germany wanted a formally correct process at the OPCW first. Now that is done, and each member state has access to the official results of the sample testing of Navalny’s blood by OPCW. And still, Russia does not seem to have opened a criminal case.”

Armed with the OPCW evidence especially, the European Union has imposed targeted sanctions on six Russian officials including Alexander Bortnikov, the chief of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the top KGB successor agency that is in charge of domestic security, and Sergei Kiriyenko, President Vladimir Putin’s deputy chief of staff.

Russia has denied having had anything to do with any poisoning of Navalny and in his article, ambassador Rogachev suggested Germany and the West more broadly had no evidence against Russia and had invented the charges just “to point fingers and designate the culprit. It doesn’t need the truth. It needs obedience to its will”.

Rogachev also asked why Russia would have used Novichok against Navalny and then have let him leave Russia for Germany which would immediately have revealed that Russia had done it. 

“Russia is doing a poor job of being a ‘criminal’ in this ‘detective story’ as it seems to be doing everything it can to be revealed and punished as soon as possible,” Rogachev wrote.

He said Russia’s alleged failure to kill Navalny looked inconsistent with the image, portrayed by the Western media “of the devious and all-powerful Russian special services and the president himself — a former KGB officer — who managed to manipulate elections and other democratic procedures in the US and many other countries…” 

An undated handout photo made available by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny via his Instagram site shows Navalny in his Charité hospital bed in Berlin. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Alexei Navalny)

Rogachev said if Novichok was really such a deadly poison, how had Navalny survived it? 

“Russia’s poisoning of Navalny is absurd, no matter how you look at it,” he said and concluded that the charges against Russia had been trumped up as a pretext for cancelling the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a major project to supply Russian gas to Germany and other European nations which is just about to start pumping. 

Western governments insist, however, that “there are several clues that hint to at least some degree of involvement by the Russian state”.

An official said it was revealing that Rogachev had essentially said the Russians couldn’t have done it because if they had, Navalny would have died. “ ‘Don’t take us for fools,’ is what Rogachev is essentially saying,” one official said. But in fact, a few courageous Russians, good luck and strong international pressure seemed to have saved him, this official suggested. 

After Navalny collapsed on the aircraft, “the pilots decided to make an emergency landing to save the life of their passenger…

“Then Navalny was rushed to the hospital in Omsk where he was kept for days at the acute poisoning department.” Navalny told Der Spiegel International that he was given the drug atropine in Omsk — an antidote to Novichok — though the doctors there later denied that he had been poisoned.

“Meanwhile, so much international pressure was built up through the friends of Navalny who had gotten the consent of Germany and the German hospital Charité to take him on a medevac flight from Siberia to Berlin,” this official said. “It took the Russian authorities two days to decide what to do.”

Yet why would Navalny be allowed to leave Russia if the Russians feared that would reveal what happened to him?

Maybe they believed Germany would not have the technical ability to detect the poison at that stage, as it seems that Novichok is slowly but surely flushed out of the body. So there’s only a certain period within which to establish its presence.

Some analysts suggest that because Navalny is such a prominent public figure in Russia, the poisoning could not have been done without consent from Moscow. Others believe the actions of the security services are not always coherent, so some agents in Siberia might have taken matters into their own hands. 

Rogachev’s contention that Germany invented the charges against Russia as a pretext for cancelling the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project seems unlikely.

True, there is a robust debate about this possibility in Germany and the US. Some of Germany’s Eastern European neighbours, including Poland, have wanted the project cancelled for many years. But would Germany itself pull the plug on the project when Russian, and formerly Soviet, gas has been such an important part of the country’s diversified energy mix for decades? Many business and political interests have stakes in the project. 

The poisoning of Navalny was not the first time Novichok has allegedly been used against an enemy of the Putin administration. In 2018, the former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, who had changed sides and spied for Britain, was poisoned with Novichok in Salisbury, England along with his daughter Yulia.

Both survived, though an innocent third party, who was apparently accidentally poisoned, died. British scientists — also backed up by the OPCW — determined that Novichok was the poison used. London accused Moscow of responsibility for the crime and expelled several Russian diplomats.

A staged protest in front of the Russian embassy shows a picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin (C), Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny (L) and a Russian teapot samovar with a note reading ‘Novichok tea’, ‘Kremlin tea’ and ‘from Russia with love’, in Berlin, Germany, 16 September 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE/CLEMENS BILAN)

In a similar fashion, though with a different weapon, Moscow allegedly ordered the assassination of another enemy of the government on German soil in 2019. Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Georgian national and former Chechen rebel commander was shot dead on 23 August 2019 in Berlin’s Tiergarten park, allegedly by one “Vadim K” who had flown from Moscow to Berlin via Paris and Warsaw to kill him on the orders of the Russian government, according to German prosecutors.

Vadim K’s trial is due to start soon. 

Where does the Navalny case go from here? Germany and a number of other EU member states want to take the issue forward in relevant multilateral bodies, first and foremost at the OPCW, although they are quite aware that it has already been rocked and undermined by previous controversies, including the Skripal case and also Russia’s protection of its ally Syria when Damascus was widely accused of having used chemical weapons against its own people.

After fierce political battles, it was eventually agreed in 2018 to extend the OPCW’s powers so that it could not only determine that chemical weapons had been used in a particular instance, but who had been responsible. Russia and China had strongly resisted such efforts and accused Western governments of politicising the OPCW. South Africa, which is a member of the OPCW’s 41-member executive council, has often joined Russia and China in these arguments.

“We will strive to uphold the prohibition of chemical weapons and strongly support the OPCW in that endeavour,” says Germany’s ambassador to South Africa Martin Schäfer.

“The unequivocal prohibition of chemical weapons is one of the big achievements of that moment in history when the Cold War ended and the international community agreed on bold disarmament conventions which continue to be extremely important for the multilateral world order as a whole, for peace and development. 

“And we are going to continue to seek partners all over the world in enforcing the rules and regulations of the OPCW. We will also continue to ask Russia to follow up on what happened on their territory in terms of alleged crimes being committed. We have followed due process in providing evidence that Mr Navalny was poisoned on Russian territory,” said Schäfer.

Russia, incidentally, is not the only state which assassinates its enemies on foreign soil. Rwanda has also done so several times, or tried to, as South Africa knows all too well. Suspected Rwandan agents murdered former Rwandan intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya in a Sandton hotel on New Year’s Eve in 2013 and have tried to kill former military chief of staff Kayumba Nyamwasa about four times in this country. 

Both men, once very close to Rwandan President Paul Kagame, had later fallen out with him and from exile had helped launch an opposition political party. 

It seems Russia and Rwanda share a contempt for the sovereignty of other states and the rule of law — and South Africa and Germany share the experience of having been at the receiving end of such contempt. DM

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