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Putin Critic Alexei Navalny Arrives In Germany For Medical Treatment


A flight carrying Alexei Navalny has landed in Berlin. Doctors there are attending to him. Mr. Navalny is a Russian dissident, and he's in a coma. He's a leading critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and was in Siberia Thursday when he suddenly fell gravely ill. His supporters say he was poisoned. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us from Berlin. Rob, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: What will doctors in Berlin be looking for as they treat Mr. Navalny?

SCHMITZ: Well, the priority for doctors here will be to keep Navalny alive. He's fighting for his life at the moment. He's on a respirator and in a coma but in stable condition. Doctors will run a series of diagnostic tests to confirm whether he was poisoned. His supporters suspect that tea he drank in a Siberian airport was tampered with, and poisoning is a common method the Russian state has used in the past in dealing with its critics.

SIMON: It took a full day of wrangling between Navalny's team and doctors in Siberia to finally gain his release from the hospital. Do we know what was behind that delay?

SCHMITZ: Well, Navalny's supporters think doctors were under orders by the Russian state to not allow him to be released until the poison was out of his system. We've seen this before. Pyotr Verzilov - a Russian dissident and former spokesman of the punk band Pussy Riot - was suspected of being poisoned two years ago. And here's what he said yesterday in a press conference about the parallels between his and Navalny's case.


PYOTR VERZILOV: The similarities here are striking, not only in the medical condition but also in the behavior of Russian law enforcement officials and doctors because the main accusation that my family, friends and lawyers were addressing at the moment of my poisoning was that during the first day, I was completely sealed off in the intensive care units. And no analysis - no official medical statements were made, which were obviously extremely crucial to understanding what specific substance I was poisoned with and how it happened.

SCHMITZ: And, Scott, in Verzilov's case, he was finally released a few days later and was flown to Berlin, where doctors concluded he was likely poisoned. Now, for its part, the Russian government has denied poisoning Verzilov and is now denying having anything to do with the current condition of Alexei Navalny.

SIMON: A Berlin organization arranged for the travel for Mr. Navalny, and Chancellor Merkel supported that decision. Relations between Russia and Germany have been tense. How does that story affect that?

SCHMITZ: Well, Merkel and her government have become increasingly frustrated with Putin and his government for a number of reasons. Germany believes Russian intelligence hacked Merkel's personal email. Almost exactly one year ago, a Russian national assassinated a former Chechen military commander at a park in broad daylight here in Berlin. And there is strong evidence that Russia was behind that. So Germany expelled Russian diplomats late last year as a response to that. Lastly, the recent unrest in Belarus over a potentially fraudulent election has prompted Merkel to not recognize the results of that election. And Putin answered by telling her that any attempts to interfere in Belarus's domestic affairs would be unacceptable. So the case of Alexei Navalny here comes amidst a lot of tension between these two countries.

SIMON: NPR's Rob Schmitz from Berlin, thanks so much for being with us.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.