German doctors treating Alexey Navalny in Berlin confirmed today that Russia’s most prominent opposition politician was most likely poisoned. As of Monday, 24 August it seems that Navalny might survive the attack, but little is known about his condition (unless you get your news from the “Bild” tabloid, which you should not). Yet, there are a couple of lessons and conclusions that we can draw from the attempt on his life.
First, the communication of the doctors in the Omsk hospital was appalling. I do not want to read more into the United Russia membership of head doctor Alexander Murakhovsky than there is – you can join the governing party to ensure your career while continuing to do your job honestly – and arguably Navalny’s poisoning and the emergency landing of the plane took most people by surprise and no one was apparently ready, but the contradictory messages, the delays, the nervousness, the significant and obtrusive presence of law enforcement in the hospital with toughies rather than doctors in charge sent exactly the kind of messages that suggested foul play. It showed that in today’s Russia if you are a prominent dissident and suddenly you need to rely on the state for services, this is what is going to come with it.
Many have predictably rushed to the conclusion that Navalny was “poisoned by the Kremlin”, but this seems far from certain. This would not be the first political assassination (attempt) to be committed under the Kremlin’s watch but not at the Kremlin’s orders. Think of the murder of Boris Nemtsov in 2015, near the Kremlin, where evidence pointed towards the involvement of Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s despotic leader. Navalny definitely had a lot of enemies – he and his foundation did more to investigate and expose corruption and to bring political activism to the countryside than anyone else in the past decade – and one can even argue that getting him killed, with the unpredictable reaction that this might trigger, was not in the Kremlin’s interests. However, it was Putin who created a system, in which whoever did try to kill Navalny’s could reasonably expect impunity. Think of the murder of Boris Nemtsov again. But you could think of many others. The list is depressingly long.
Alas, while this impunity persists it will matter little whether Russia is a member of the Council of Europe; no one will be discouraged from harming activists by the prospect of a distant court decision that the Russian government can choose to ignore. Some last year argued it must remain that at all costs, for the sake of Russian activists and dissidents, even if this meant the CoE giving in to the Russian government’s blackmail by weakening its own rules on sanctions. The interim measures of the European Court of Human Rights in Navalny’s case were surely appreciated – the deadline set was August 24, by the way – but in the end quick and decisive action by Germany and France and a decision taken in Moscow likely mattered more to get Navalny out of Omsk.
On a side note: for years some have suspected that Navalny must have had a “krysha” or protector in the Federal Security Service (FSB) who ensured that even as he was routinely jailed and attacked, no serious harm came to him (and perhaps even leaked information). Most of us are simply poking around in the dark, but the fact that Navalny was poisoned (while under extensive surveillance) does raise questions about the nature of this (supposed) relationship or indeed the FSB’s position.
It is also fair to say that even if the decision to poison Navalny was not taken at the highest levels of politics, the Kremlin may still ultimately benefit from it. Yes, objectively the state of the Omsk Emergency Hospital Nr. 1 that was put on display in the media together with Navalny should be embarrassing for any government – but it’s not like any Russian citizen who has ever been in one will be surprised or shocked to find out that this is what a Russian hospital looks like. What is important to the authorities is that the reactions to the attempt on Navalny’s life have – so far – been muted, especially compared to the loud outbursts of anger over meddling in local representative organs (both last year’s protests in Moscow and this year’s protests in Khabarovsk belong to this category). If there is little or no public outcry over Navalny, this will ultimately provide a useful feedback for the Kremlin on the risks of increasing the pressure on opposition leaders and investigative outlets. Putin will certainly take this tactical gain.
And while we are talking about tactical gains, there seems to be a clear attempt on behalf of the authorities to use the situation to sling mud at Navalny. First there was the rumor spread on certain Telegram channels that he simply abused alcohol. Then RT’s “investigators” found out that Navalny was transferred to Berlin’s Charite hospital in an ambulance belonging to the German military (which required no more than basic German skills, given that “Bundeswehr” was written on the ambulance in big red letters). I would not be surprised if it turned out that we are seeing the first attempts to build up a narrative of Navalny, “the foreign agent”, a label that was already attached to his foundation last year. It would be difficult to imagine Navalny not returning to Russia from Germany, but the authorities will certainly make this as difficult as possible, for this would also impact the operations and the image of his vast network.
Lastly, here is another question to consider. Maintaining a concerning degree of unpredictability has been one of the Russian government’s methods of ensuring that it is not challenged too easily internationally; that other governments will rather find ways to tame Russia and to work with it. But that unpredictability has been planned, overseen, or at least kept under control by the government. How will increased domestic unpredictability affect the Kremlin’s position vis-à-vis critics, opponents and popular movements?