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Alexei Navalny in a fight for his life

Roman Goncharenko
April 20, 2021

The state of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's health is making headlines globally, with his supporters urging mass protests. It is a race against time before his allies are forced underground.

Alexei Navalny
Alexei Navalny has been on a hunger strike for weeksImage: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

How is Alexei Navalny? Yaroslav Aschichmin was clearly irritated when a DW reporter posed that question on the phone on Tuesday morning.

"I haven't seen him," the therapist and cardiologist, who says he has been treating the Russian Kremlin critic since 2013, answered. Aschichmin is one of several specialists who gathered at the penal colony from where Russia's most prominent prisoner was transferred to a prison hospital just a few days ago. "We arrived today and had an unofficial promise to visit," Aschichmin said. "We waited for an hour and a half in the freezing wind, and then they said they couldn't let us in after all."

Car at the entrance to a gate
Navalny's doctors demand access to their patient in the IK-3 penal colonyImage: TATYANA MAKEYEVA/REUTERS

Life-threatening symptoms?

In an open letter in mid-April, Moscow doctors said Navalny's health had deteriorated dramatically. The opposition politician went on a hunger strike on March 31 in a bid to force Russian authorities into letting him be examined by doctors he trusts, a request they have so far refused.

According to reports from people close to him, an examination found elevated levels of potassium. "Potassium levels that are too high can lead to cardiac arrest or arrhythmia," said Aschichmin, adding that Navalny has not been provided with a diagnosis. Before he was poisoned with the Novichok nerve agent in the northern hemisphere summer of 2020, Navalny was "a completely healthy person," the physician said. His current symptoms "could be life-threatening," which is why Navalny should be transferred to an emergency room.

According to official sources, Navalny's condition is "satisfactory." The imprisoned opposition politician was examined in a hospital, including undergoing an MRI scan, and was found to have herniated discs, the law enforcement agency told Russian media. Navalny had complained of back pain and numbness in his legs and arms.

Pressure from Berlin and Washington

After his return from Germany, where he received medical treatment following the poisoning, Navalny was sentenced to prison for alleged economic crimes on charges he has denied. Since March, he has been held in the high-security penal colony in the Vladimir region, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of Moscow.

Meanwhile, Western political leaders have increasingly expressed concern about the state of Navalny's health. The German government is trying to use its influence to ensure that "he receives appropriate medical care," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday during a video link at the Council of Europe.

Earlier, the US government threatened Russia with harsh consequences if Navalny were to die in custody. The EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, urged Russia Monday to comply with Navalny's request. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has already said that the health of Russian prisoners is none of any foreign governments' business.

Nationwide pro-Navalny protests 

Ivan Zhdanov welcomes Western interference. "Only a combination of domestic protests and international pressure can change Alexei Navalny's situation," Zhdanov, head of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), told DW. The Navalny associate accused the Russian president of allowing Navalny to die "live."

Ivan Zhdanov
Ivan Zhdanov, director Alexei Navalny's Anti-Corruption FoundationImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Zemlianichenko

Zhdanov and other supporters have called for nationwide protests on Wednesday evening. They originally wanted to wait until half a million participants had registered online, but then decided to bring the date forward because of Navalny's "poor condition" and the looming threat of soon being driven underground.

In a surprise move, the Moscow prosecutor's office requested that FBK and other Navalny projects be classified as "extremist organizations." Legal proceedings on the matter are classified as secret. If the ban is enacted, Navalny and his allies can no longer legally work in Russia.

On Wednesday, the day of the planned protests, President Putin will be delivering his State of the Union address, too. Zhdanov says it is a coincidence, but is pleased about the additional pressure on the president. Whether hundreds of thousands of protesters actually turn out, however, depends on how tough the police response is, Zhdanov said. During the recent protests for Navalny's release in winter, tens of thousands of mostly young Russians took to the streets across the country — and thousands were arrested.

This article was translated from German.