There’s No Good News For Putin in Poisoned Tea Leaves

We will probably never know for certain who ordered tainted tea for the Kremlin’s most vocal critic. Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption campaigning has made him a long list of enemies, and a dark undercurrent of violence is never far from the surface in Russian politics. The timing of the assault, though, suggests worrying disquiet among those in charge. 

Regional elections are weeks away, and anti-government protests in the Far East aren’t going away. There’s also economic discontent at home, plus an ongoing uprising in neighboring Belarus, led by an unexpectedly galvanizing opposition

Rather than fixing President Vladimir Putin’s problems, though, the assault may make them worse.

Navalny, who has been repeatedly intimidated, was taken ill on Thursday on a flight back to Moscow from the Siberian city of Tomsk, where he had been working with local activists ahead of the September polls. His spokeswoman says tea he drank before boarding was laced with poison, leaving him unconscious. No investigation is yet underway.

Unfortunately, while the assault is alarming, it is hardly surprising in a country where opposition voices are regularly silenced with impunity. In one of the most striking cases, charismatic reformist Boris Nemtsov was shot within spitting distance of the Kremlin in 2015. Security camera footage was never released, and the ultimate instigators of the attack were never found

Many of the activists attacked, including murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Nemtsov and Navalny himself, had been dismissed by officials as insignificant threats. Yet in the Omsk hospital where the 44-year-old is being treated, the petty inhumanity suggests otherwise. According to his aide, police sought to confiscate his belongings and the hospital initially demanded a marriage certificate from his wife before she could see him. Doctors argue he can’t be moved, and have so far refused to discharge him so he can fly to Europe for treatment.

There is truth in the idea that Navalny is an irritant, rather than — as yet — a genuine, immediate menace to the system. In the heterogeneous anti-Putin camp, some fret about his dalliances with ethnic Russian nationalists, while the Kremlin’s constant smearing of Navalny has helped taint his popular image. On Thursday, at least one tabloid suggested the poisoning was caused by alcohol. He has also kept a lower profile recently. Still, he remains probably the best-known opposition leader and campaigner: His video questioning the lavish lifestyle of Dmitry Medvedev, former president and prime minister, has racked up more than 30 million views. Medvedev denied the allegations.

More significantly, though, he is perceived as an unquantifiable risk. His tactical voting campaign, which aims to unite voters around candidates not affiliated with the ruling United Russia party, has had a significant impact in previous local and regional elections. The poisoning sends a warning signal to local supporters hoping to repeat that trick, says Vladimir Gelman, a political science professor at the European University at St. Petersburg who studies Russia’s opposition.

It all points to a sense of vulnerability. Certainly, there is no indication that Putin ordered the attack. More likely, as Tatiana Stanovaya of political think tank R.Politik explains, it was orchestrated by one of the many targets of Navalny’s investigations among the country’s most powerful people, or by an overzealous protector of the regime. That was the case with Nemtsov, whose attackers had ties to Chechnya’s strongman leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. (Kadyrov has denied any involvement.) 

Either way, the incident bodes ill in almost every way. Most obviously, it's a reminder that Putin’s Russia remains a place where such attacks are permitted, and where opposition voices are under permanent threat. It’s also a reminder to the West that despite every pundit’s logical cost-benefit analysis of what Putin may or may not do — say, a potential invasion of Belarus — there is a paranoia among the Putin entourage that makes anything possible.

The trouble for the president is that the assault could create a significant political risk, too. Such a glaring effort to silence Navalny could make the campaigner something of a hero beyond his usual following. It could potentially energize discontented voters even outside Khabarovsk, the city on the border with China where for weeks crowds have turned out to protest after the arrest of a popular local governor. That could all make it even harder for the Kremlin to win the electoral victories it needs from these regional legislative and gubernatorial elections.

Neighboring Belarus, meanwhile, is providing hope for a disillusioned electorate in Russia — and the crowds in Minsk are proof that opposition leaders come from unexpected places, at unexpected times. 

A swift and credible investigation into Navalny’s latest and gravest attack would help. If only it were likely.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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