Russia Opens Probe of Navalny Illness After Western Pressure

Russian authorities announced a preliminary probe into the sudden illness last week of opposition leader Alexey Navalny after Western leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for answers in the high-profile case.

The Interior Ministry called the probe a “pre-investigation check” and repeated the Kremlin’s earlier assertion that no poison has been found, according to a statement Thursday from police in the Siberian Federal District, where Navalny fell sick. That comes despite conclusions from doctors in Berlin, where he was taken over the weekend for treatment, that the activist was poisoned.

Navalny, 44, became violently ill on a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk to Moscow last week. He’s been in an induced coma since then, in a serious but stable condition. Doctors at Berlin’s Charite hospital said he was exposed to a cholinesterase inhibitor, a chemical group that includes some nerve agents, though the exact compound hasn’t yet been identified.

The Kremlin initially brushed off Merkel’s call for a probe, saying there was nothing to investigate until the precise poison was determined, fueling tensions with Berlin. Officials in the U.S., U.K. and France also called for an inquiry.

Russian President Vladimir Putin relented Wednesday evening, telling Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte that the Kremlin is interested in a “thorough, objective investigation” related to Navalny’s hospitalization, according to a Kremlin statement. But he also warned against making “premature and unfounded accusations” in the case.

Europe Tensions

On Thursday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the episode is already hurting Russia’s relations with Europe.

“There are many that think that Russian authorities are behind this poisoning attack. That is disputed by Moscow,” Maas said in an interview with ZDF television.

“Russia has its own interest in clarifying this affair, so we have an expectation that Russia contributes to an investigation that has to happen,” he told reporters later ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Berlin. “If that’s not the case, then it won’t be possible for Moscow to deny the accusations.”

Navalny’s case was not addressed during a 20-minute interview with Putin broadcast on the state channel Rossiya 24 Thursday. The probe is routine police work and the Kremlin hasn’t been following it, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on a call with reporters earlier in the day.

The Prosecutor General’s Office has been looking into the situation since Aug. 20 but hasn’t found any reason to open a case, Interfax reported Thursday, citing spokesman Andrei Ivanov. It requested information about Navalny’s diagnosis from Charite, he said.

Navalny’s camp hasn’t seen any documentary evidence that police have started an investigation, as called for in the Russian criminal code, his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said by text message.

“Navalny’s status outside the system also means that he cannot count on getting justice from the state, which views him as something approaching a cancer cell,” Tatiana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote. “A thorough investigation into his poisoning is not to be expected.”

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