Letter From the Editors

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny is slowly recuperating in Germany, where he has been receiving lifeline medical treatment after falling violently ill aboard a plane en route from Tomsk to Moscow. Doctors reported this week that he has been taken out of a medically induced coma. German toxicologists say he was poisoned with Novichok – a powerful chemical weapon developed in the Soviet Union.

Republic columnist Rimma Polyak chronicles the chain of events in the Navalny affair and their fallout, which doesn’t look good for the Russian authorities. Attempts to thwart medical treatment for the sickened opposition leader apparently began even while Navalny was still at the Omsk airport, where his flight made an emergency landing: Two bomb threats were called into the airport where medical workers were giving Navalny initial emergency treatment. Navalny faced even more hurdles at the hospital, where law-enforcement and hospital administration officials found reasons to deny his wife access to him. Yulia Navalnaya eventually managed to see Aleksei and get him and his personal belongings out of the Omsk hospital. One of those belongings, a water bottle, is apparently the smoking gun – it reportedly contained traces of Novichok.

The Kremlin continues to maintain there was no foul play (at least not on its part), which is why a criminal case has still not been opened in Russia over the incident. The Russian government says it will respond only to concrete evidence, not to what it calls baseless assertions. Fairly or unfairly, the Putin regime is facing more pressure and questions from the West, as Yury Safronov, Aleksei Fenenko and Vladimir Solovyov remark (each from a slightly different position).

The Putin regime has been grasping for more and more lifelines lately, and it is getting less and less discreet about it. The recent revisions to the Russian Constitution were a barefaced attempt to keep Putin in power, but recent protest rallies across the country do not bode well for the regime’s long-term stability. Was Moscow reaching for another lifeline when it sought to dispose of its biggest and toughest critic, as Western leaders are claiming? Such a brazen move smacks of desperation. Could the regime really be so audacious and stoop so low?

One thing is certain: The ruling elite are clearly fretting about the future. Despite a landslide victory in the September regional elections, the ruling United Russia party is not taking the 2021 State Duma elections for granted. Party leader and former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev is pushing for a universal basic income in Russia in a populist move that may shore up support for the party in the short term but undoubtedly cripple the economy in the long run, writes the editorial board of Ekspert.

Another recent lifeline grab came from embattled Belarussian ruler Aleksandr Lukashenko, who this week made a trip to Sochi to meet with his Russian counterpart in a bid for much-coveted public support. During the open part of the meeting, Lukashenko fawned before the Russian leader, who promised Belarus more financial aid. What they talked about and decided on in their lengthy behind-doors discussions is anybody’s guess, but the lack of transparency didn’t sit well with the Belarussian opposition. The irony is that Lukashenko fiercely criticizes Russia whenever he feels that doing so helps his image with Belarussians. But while Lukashenko’s latest lifeline from Putin may help him in the short term, it might ultimately undermine his long-term position by making him even more dependent on Russia. And it could also hurt Russia, columnist Nikolai Raisky warns: The Russian regime must realize that the Belarussian people could in their own way be Moscow’s own lifeline. So the Kremlin must not burn bridges with the Belarussian people by propping up an iron-fisted ruler who is not popular with the people by any stretch of the imagination. Lifelines are always tenuous.