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Putin critic Alexei Navalny is latest Russian dissident to be poisoned & why Belarus on fire

In episode 558 of #CutTheClutter, Shekhar Gupta talks about Russia's history with dissenters that often ends in poisonings, and the role of Belarus in all this.

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New Delhi: Russia’s history has never been kind to dissidents and the latest one on the list is whistleblower and journalist Alexei Navalny, said ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta in episode 557 of ‘Cut The Clutter’.

Navalny, a strong critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been in a medically induced coma after a case of suspected poisoning on 20 August.

He had gone to Siberia and on his way out to the airport in the city of Tomsk, Navalny had consumed tea in a place called the Vienna Coffee Shop. The tea was allegedly poisoned.

As his health began worsening mid-air, the flight was diverted to a town called Omsk where he was taken to the intensive care unit of a hospital.

While the doctors’ initial assessment revealed that they suspected poisoning, the assessment was soon retracted. Later, new theories began emerging and several reports also claimed that Navalny had a drinking problem. This was refuted by his team.

Navalny’s wife Yulia was also not allowed to meet him at the hospital and was asked to present a marriage certificate as proof.

Several Western powers including French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo voiced their support for Navalny. He was then flown out to Germany for treatment.

Also read: Merkel demands answers from Putin govt after tests find his critic Navalny was poisoned

Who is Alexei Navalny?

Navalny, a 44-year-old investigative journalist and politician, runs a group called the ‘Anti-Corruption Foundation’ that has exposed several corruption scandals of Russia’s elite. He has been barred from appearing on state media and works primarily through social media where he has a large following.

“He is not afraid of anybody and has been jailed 13 times and yet he is getting on with this campaign”, said Gupta.

According to John E. Herbst, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, the reason for this action against Navalny lies in the Russian city Khabarovsk and Belarus’ capital Minsk.

Khabarovsk has witnessed large demonstrations against its governor and excessive interference by the federal government since July. Navalny had gone there to talk and campaign in support of the citizens.

Massive demonstrations are also under way in Belarus’s Minsk since the election results were announced on 9 August. Thousands of people have taken to the streets, protesting against the results that they believe were rigged by leader Alexander Lukashenko. Lukashenko won a sixth consecutive term with approximately 80 per cent of the vote, despite being highly unpopular.

He seems to be the only surviving dictator in Europe, Gupta said.

Belarus is important to Putin as it acts as a buffer between NATO and Russia. He cannot let the country go to the West but the young people in Belarus seem to be inclined towards it.

“Belarus is on fire and Putin is afraid that this fire will then come to Moscow,” said Gupta.

Putin is trying hard to put down the trouble in Belarus and had even declared that Russia will intervene if it came under attack from any power.

Also read: Putin cemented his future, but Russia faces key hurdles ahead — from economy to foreign policy

Poisoning of dissidents 

Political scientist Yana Gorokhovskaia’s article in The Guardian suggests that it is not just Putin but a deep state that carries out this clampdown on dissenters.

This is also not the first time Navalny has been attacked. In 2017, he was doused with a chemical dye and lost most of the sight in one of his eyes.

Activist Vladimir Kara-Murza was also poisoned twice in 2015 and 2017. Investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was poisoned in 2004 while boarding a flight, just like Navalny. While she survived the poisoning, she was assassinated in her apartment complex a couple of years later.

Boris Nemtsov, a deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin and long-time Putin critic, was also assassinated in 2015. Ivan Golunov, a journalist in Moscow, was allegedly framed and arrested for drug possession in 2019.

David Kramer, senior fellow at Florida International University, has noted that over the years prominent Russian dissidents, opposition figures, journalists and spies have been assassinated, usually by poison.

Luke Harding, a well-known Russian scholar, also wrote a book called ‘A Very Expensive Poison’, which was based on the murder of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. Litvinenko was the first one to be killed using radioactive polonium.

Pavel Sudoplatov, who was a former spy chief under Stalin, had once said if Soviet intelligence unit KGB wanted to kill somebody, poison was the best instrument.

In 1979, Bulgaria dissident Georgi Markov was killed by a poison-tipped umbrella while he was waiting for a bus at Waterloo Bridge in London.

Putin cannot let Belarus go but he has limited ability to control it. At the same time, he also cannot have dissidents come up within his country as well. And in that process, unfortunate decisions are taken.

“Somehow it seems that the life of a human being is not worth that much (in Russia). Especially if it is the life of a dissident”, said Gupta.

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  1. Dear Shekhar

    I strongly feel that you are not taking the government to the task hard enough and sometimes let them go away with murders. The economy has tanked and COVID is out of Control. The print itself has published the Bloomberg report that India is the hotspot or Epicentre of COVID 19 now. It is baffling to me and for many that how govt. is taking it business as usual approach. To me Indian policy director on COVID, China and Economy looks cluttered enough to be decluttered

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