BERLIN – Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is still in an induced coma from a suspected poisoning but his condition is stable and his symptoms are improving, the German doctors treating him said Friday.
Navalny, a politician and corruption investigator who is one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critics, fell ill on a flight back to Moscow from Siberia on Aug 20 and was taken to a hospital in the Siberian city of Omsk after the plane made an emergency landing.
Last weekend, he was transferred to the Charité hospital in Berlin, where doctors found indications of “cholinesterase inhibitors” in his system.
Found in some drugs, pesticides and chemical nerve agents, cholinesterase inhibitors block the breakdown of a key chemical in the body, acetycholine, that transmits signals between nerve cells.
Navalny, 44, is being treated with the antidote atropine. Charité said “there has been some improvement in the symptoms caused by the inhibition of cholinesterase activity.”
“While his condition remains serious, there is no immediate danger to his life,” the hospital said. “However, due to the severity of the patient’s poisoning, it remains too early to gauge potential long-term effects.”
Navalny's wife Yulia has been visiting him regularly at the hospital and Charité said physicians remain in close contact with her.
Navalny’s allies insist he was deliberately poisoned and say the Kremlin was behind it, accusations that Russian officials rejected as “empty noise.”
Western experts have cautioned that it is far too early to draw any conclusions about what may have caused Navalny's condition, but note that Novichok, the Soviet-era nerve agent used to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain, was a cholinesterase inhibitor.
The Russian doctors who treated Navalny in Siberia have repeatedly contested the German hospital’s conclusion, saying they had ruled out poisoning as a diagnosis and that their tests for cholinesterase inhibitors came back negative.
Navalny was brought to Germany for treatment after Chancellor Angela Merkel personally offered the possibility of him being treated in Berlin.
“We have an obligation to do everything so that this can be cleared up,” Merkel told reporters at her annual summer news conference on Friday. “It was right and good that Germany said we were prepared ... to take in Mr. Navalny. And now we will try to get this cleared up with the possibilities we have, which are indeed limited.”
When there is more clarity about what happened, Germany will try to ensure a “European reaction” to the case, Merkel said. She cited the poisonings of Skripal and his daughter two years ago, which prompted many European countries to expel Russian diplomats and vice-versa.
Following a meeting in Berlin with his counterparts from 26 European Union countries, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said forcefully that Russia had an obligation to carry out a thorough investigation, something many countries have called for.
“Russia must contribute more to clearing up the Navalny case, and the investigations that we expect must not remain a fig leaf,” Maas told reporters. “The background to this act must be investigated comprehensively and transparently, and those responsible — directly and indirectly —brought to account.”
So far, Russian authorities appear reluctant to investigate the politician’s condition. Navalny’s team submitted a request last week to Russia’s Investigative Committee, demanding authorities launch a criminal probe on charges of an attempt on the life of a public figure and attempted murder, but said there was no reaction.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he saw no grounds for a criminal case until the cause of the politician’s condition was fully established. Russia’s Prosecutor General’s office said Thursday that a preliminary inquiry launched last week hasn’t found any indication of “deliberate criminal acts committed against” Navalny.
The dissident's supporters are not surprised at the Kremlin's reaction.
“They understand that any investigation will lead to the Kremlin,” Lyubov Sobol, a prominent opposition politician and one of Navalny’s closest allies, told The Associated Press on Friday. “They’re not launching a criminal probe ... because they will have to answer at some point what the results of the investigation are.”
Sobol says while Navalny's condition hasn't prompted big protests in Russia, it has stirred the outrage brewing there.
“I saw a lot of comments from well-known public figures in Russia who have never spoken out for Alexei Navalny before, (but now) spoke their minds and said that this was outrageous, it shouldn't be this way,” Sobol said. “It's a turning point.”
Even with their leader in the hospital, Navalny's team continues its work on corruption investigations and regional election campaigns in Moscow and dozens of other regions. Navalny's most recent project, Smart Voting, identifies candidates that are most likely to beat those from Putin’s United Russia party and his supporters actively campaign for them.
According to Sobol, the team is used to working in his absence — frequently arrested, Navalny has spent more than a year in jail in recent years.
“So we know how to work without direct orders from Navalny. We understand what we need to do,” Sobol said.
Litvinova reported from Moscow. Alexander Roslyakov in Moscow and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed.