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Poisoned Navalny plans to return, but Russian opposition activists wonder who could be next

Not only Navalny is under attack.

Just one day after he emerged from his medical coma, at least three volunteers associated with his team were directed to their office in Novosibirsk, Siberia.

Two masked men were filmed by security cameras that stormed the office of Coalition Novosibirsk 2020, which is also the headquarters of Navalny’s local team.

One of them threw a bottle containing an unknown yellow liquid – described to CNN as a “sharp chemical”, “unbearable” by witnesses – to volunteers who were there for a lecture on the upcoming local elections before it expired.

The Kremlin has denied anything to do with the attacks, but analysts are skeptical.

“Russia has a record number of sudden deaths among Kremlin critics: Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko and Boris Nemtsov, to name a few,”

; said longtime Russian analyst Valery Akimenko of the Research Center for Conflict Studies, an independent research group. “If it wasn’t a murder plot or an assassination attempt, it was an act of intimidation.”

Which raises an important question: what immediate danger is Navalny in if and when he returns to Russia?

“I don’t think the words safety or security apply to anyone who is in opposition in Russia,” said Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian opposition politician and chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Freedom Foundation, who has been poisoned twice in the past five years. years.

“I can have as much protection as I like, but I have to touch the door handles and breathe air,” he says. “The only real precaution I was able to take was to take my family out of the country.”

The Kremlin has denied involvement in any of the attacks on Kara-Murza, although his wife has directly accused the Russian government of responsibility.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle has also denied involvement in Navalny’s poisoning, but Akimenko says the language coming from the Kremlin in recent weeks is unlikely to be reassuring, given the near-death of a prominent politician.

“Just look at what’s coming out of Russia,” he said. “Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was no need for Putin to meet with Navalny; Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said there was no legal basis for a criminal investigation; Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin spoke instead of investigating a possible foreign provocation; no one but the Russian state. ”

As if the government’s outspoken opponent was not a sufficient risk for Navalny, other critics of Putin believe that what is seen as a failed assassination attempt to scare opponents could be reversed.

“Now that Alexei Navalny has survived, it could be a spectacular mistake that only empowers the opposition and Navalny,” said Bill Browder, a prominent financier who became a thorn in Putin’s side after the US sanctions were named after Browder’s lawyer. Sergei Magnitsky, who died in suspicious circumstances in a Russian prison.

Kara-Murza points out that in the very region of Siberia where the election campaign took place, Navalny’s allies won against Putin’s ruling United Russia in last weekend’s election.

“When Russians have a real choice, they are very happy to demonstrate how sick they are of Putin’s one-man rule,” he told CNN.

Every time he returns to Russia, the risk for both him and his supporters is likely to remain very high; Did this affect the morale of the opposition?

“Putin rules through symbolism,” Browder said. “To take the most popular opposition politician and poison him with a deadly nerve means to scare the less popular ones.”

So, will it work?

Kara-Murza says Putin’s critic Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated near the Kremlin in February 2015, told his allies a few days before taking part in an anti-government protest in Moscow: “We must do what we have to do and whatever happens can. Of course, we understand the dangers, but we are determined, not scared. ”

Russia's regional elections are a serious test for the pro-Kremlin party

And while Akimenko says, “If Russian opposition leaders don’t worry, they should worry,” he added, “They were fearless in the face of personal physical attacks on Navalny and the persecution disguised as persecution.”

The episode with Navalny revealed to the world the dangers of political opposition in Russia.

But for those actively involved in the battle, it simply underscores the threat they already knew, Kara-Murza said.

“I was poisoned twice,” he said. “I was in both times [a] coma. Both times the doctors told my wife that I had a 5% chance of living. Boris Nemtsov had 0% when he was shot in the back. But it’s not about safety; it is about the right thing for our country. It would be too much of a gift for the Kremlin if those of us who stand in opposition give up and run. ”

CNN’s Mary Ilyushina contributed to this report from Moscow

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