By Robyn Dixon,
Igor Volkov AP
MOSCOW — As Russia’s most prominent opposition politician was fighting for his life in a Berlin hospital Sunday, Russian media reported that he was under constant surveillance by federal security agents during the Siberian trip on which he fell ill with suspected poisoning.
Alexei Navalny was evacuated from the Siberian city of Omsk to Berlin Saturday in a medical ambulance funded by the foundation of Russian philanthropist and former telecommunications mogul Dmitry Zimin after doctors initially denied permission for him to leave the country.
The plane departed for Germany early Saturday and a convoy of ambulances under heavy guard by German police delivered him to Berlin’s Charité hospital at 8.47 a.m.
Navalny was comatose and in critical condition when he was admitted to the hospital Saturday. The hospital said late Saturday that no new information on Navalny’s health would be available before Monday.
Navalny’s emergency evacuation to Berlin followed days of wrangling as Alexander Murakhovsky, chief physician at Omsk Emergency Hospital No. 1, denied permission for his transfer to German care. Navalny’s colleagues and supporters accused authorities of endangering his life and trying to cover up a proper investigation of the suspected poisoning.
Navalny collapsed on an early flight from Tomsk to Moscow early Thursday after visiting Novosibirsk and Tomsk. The flight was diverted to Omsk. Associates of Navalny say Omsk doctors initially seemed willing to cooperate with his evacuation but then plain clothes officials and security agents swarmed the hospital and doctors denied permission for him to leave.
Only after intense international scrutiny and expressions of concern from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron was permission granted. Supporters fear the delay might have compromised his chances of survival.
A Russian newspaper cited sources in Russian security agencies who said Navalny was subject to an intense plainclothes surveillance operation during his entire trip.
The newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets published details of the surveillance of his every movement, including where he stayed, what he and his associates ate, whom he met, his credit card records, shopping receipts and the vehicles in which he traveled, down to a sushi order and a nighttime swim in a river.
Navalny was extremely cautious when he traveled, according to the security agents cited by the newspaper, keeping a low profile and taking safety precautions. He stayed in safe houses in Novosibirsk and in a hotel in Tomsk. In the hotel, Navalny’s team took more rooms than they required, according to the newspaper; Navalny did not stay in the room that was registered in his name.
Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, called the report “amazing stuff.” She said Navalny knew he was under constant surveillance.
“The scale of the surveillance does not surprise me at all,” Yarmysh tweeted Sunday. “We were well aware of it before. But it’s amazing that they did not hesitate to tell everyone about it.”
Leonid Volkov, another Navalny aide, questioned the need for such surveillance. “A huge number of employees in civilian clothes are involved, routes are tracked, all movements, hotels, meetings,” he wrote on Facebook. “Excuse me, but actually why? Is Navalny a wanted criminal?”
Navalny’s party left Novosibirsk in two vehicles; agents set up a tracking operation.
“The entire tour of the oppositionist was well-concealed and even the ‘federals’ did not know about his plans,” Moskovsky Komsomolets reported. “Therefore, covert surveillance was established for the cars. In the highway there was a fork in the road to Kemerovo and Tomsk. The convoy was accompanied by law enforcement officers disguised as civilians from both cities.”
The Omsk region Ministry of Health said Saturday that no signs of known toxins had been found in Navalny’s system — only traces of alcohol and caffeine. Anastasia Vasilyeva, head of the Alliance of Doctors, an independent group aligned with Navalny, said he never drinks alcohol.
Yarmysh said Saturday that Navalny’s stable condition throughout the flight confirmed that nothing had prevented Navalny from being evacuated when he urgently needed it.
Kirill Martynov, policy editor of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, wrote that there was no explanation for Navalny’s sudden coma other than poisoning, which was apparently intended to kill him or disable him and remove him as an effective opponent. But he doubted Russian law enforcement would find the culprits.
“We learned the hard way that cases of assassinations and murders of public figures in Russia, critical journalists and opposition politicians are not investigated,” Martynov wrote.
“For a full two days, all the power of the Russian state was thrown into hiding the traces of what happened at the Tomsk airport,” he wrote. “Omsk doctors took up combat duty — under the close tutelage of the competent authorities — and for two days gave out more and more contradictory and absurd versions of what had happened, ranging from poisoning with a substance that is found in plastic cups, to a sharp spontaneous drop in blood sugar levels.”
Navalny is one of Russia’s sharpest Kremlin critics, known for his scathing YouTube exposes of corruption and graft by Russian politicians, bureaucrats and oligarchs.
He was barred from running in a presidential election in 2018 and has been jailed frequently for organizing unsanctioned protests. In July, he shut down his Anti-Corruption Foundation after it was crippled by fines. He pledged to immediately start a new organization that would do the same work.
In March, authorities froze his bank account and those of family members including his parents, daughter and 11-year-old son Zakhar.
He is the latest in a succession of Kremlin critics to suffer suspected or confirmed poisoning.
Journalist Anna Politkovskaya fell ill on a flight in 2004 after drinking tea. She survived but was shot dead outside her apartment in 2006.
Former intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko, living in exile, was poisoned with Polonium-210 while drinking tea in a London hotel. A British inquiry concluded that Putin probably approved his murder.
Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia nearly died in 2018 when Russian agents poisoned them with the deadly Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok (or The Newcomer).
Pussy Riot member Pyotr Verzilov, who ran onto the pitch dressed as police with other members of the group at the World Cup soccer final in front of Putin and other world leaders in 2018, fell ill with suspected poisoning just weeks later.
Verzilov, like Navalny, was evacuated to Berlin’s Charité hospital for treatment. Doctors there said it was “highly plausible” that he had been poisoned.
Other Kremlin opponents, including prominent opposition leader Boris Nemstov, have been assassinated. Nemtsov was shot dead on a Moscow bridge near the Kremlin in 2015 while walking home from dining out.