Fears over poisoning of activist Alexei Navalny based on prior Kremlin attacks

MOSCOW – The hospital treating Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny sent him back to prison Monday, despite the strenuous objection of his doctor, who said he had apparently been poisoned with a “toxic agent” in the wake of some of the largest anti-Kremlin protests held in Moscow for years.

The doctor, Anastasy Vasilyeva, said insufficient tests had been conducted on the cause of Navalny’s condition to return him to the place where she said the toxic exposure probably occurred. After being allowed to see him, Vasilyeva wrote on Facebook that Navalny was feeling better but needed continued monitoring.

Navalny, 43, the most prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin and his government, was rushed to the hospital Sunday from his jail cell, suffering from swelling and hives, which officials described as an allergic reaction. He was sentenced last week to 30 days in jail for organizing an illegal protest, days before a demonstration he had called drew thousands of people in Moscow on Saturday.

Vasilyeva, who had treated him previously, said Sunday that Navalny might have been poisoned with an unknown chemical substance. The Interfax news agency quoted a doctor at the government hospital where he was admitted as saying that he had suffered from an attack of hives but had improved.

Unease among his fellow opposition members and supporters stemmed from the Kremlin’s long history of eliminating its opponents, often by poisoning them.

Putin has tried to build an image of a powerful, united Russia, and anyone who would undermine that strength or point out that much of the country lives in poverty is often the target of official ire.

Independent journalists, rights advocates, opposition politicians, government whistleblowers and others are smeared in the media, jailed on dubious charges and, in some cases, killed. Navalny himself temporarily lost most of the vision in one eye when someone threw a caustic liquid into his face in 2017.

Analysts have described both Navalny’s medical emergency and the mass detentions Saturday, when police carted away almost 1,400 protesters, as possible signs of the Kremlin’s unease about Putin’s continued drop in the polls, with Russians grumbling about their stagnant incomes. They said that instead of doing the hard work of changing policies to woo those who are angry with Kremlin, the government is trying to silence them.

The immediate cause of the Moscow protests was anger over the Moscow City Electoral Commission’s preventing opposition candidates from registering for the September election for the 45-member city council. Fifty-seven potential candidates were blocked, including about 17 government critics.

“There are thousands of Muscovites behind every opposition member that was not allowed to run,” Nikolai Petrov, a Russian political science professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, wrote in the Vedomosti daily.

Hence the crackdown will feed more protests, he said, adding that “it is hard to imagine what they will do next, but it won’t be pleasant for the government.”