Toxic tea will not stamp out critics
Early Thursday morning, a routine flight from Siberia to the Russian capital Moscow made an emergency landing in Omsk after a passenger, Alexei Navalny, a fierce anti-corruption campaigner and Kremlin critic, fell violently ill after drinking a cup of tea.
Perhaps if Mr Navalny was not a prominent opposition activist against President Vladimir Putin, this seemingly routine emergency may have gone unnoticed. Almost instantly, Mr Navalny's supporters, Russian social media and Western news reports were quick to point the finger of his sudden collapse as a premeditated attack and case of intentional poisoning, which has left him in a coma. And for good reason.
While poisoning political rivals has largely fallen out of favour around the world, Russia has still not caught on to this trend. Historical evidence of this practice in the region can be traced as far back as 1453 when Dmitry Shemyaka, the grand duke of Moscow, died a painstakingly agonising death after falling ill for 12 days after consuming what seemed to be a normal dinner. In fact, he had been poisoned by arsenic placed in food by his chef who had been bribed.
More recently, Moscow has adopted poisonous political hits in an attempt to silence critics with various success from former Russian secret service operative Alexander Litvinenko, who was given a fatal dose of polonium 210; Sergei Skripal, another former Russian intelligence officer using a drug called Novichok; Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko with dioxin; and Pussy Riot's Pyotr Verzilov using an unknown toxin.
As in all previous instances, whenever there is an attempt on the life of a Kremlin critic, the eye of suspicion always lands on Mr Putin first. Did he sanction such a hit? And if so, why?
Undoubtedly, Mr Navalny's tireless activism has been a constant thorn in Mr Putin's side. He first rose to prominence in 2008 by exposing corruption in state-controlled corporations through social media. However, over the years, he has morphed into a skilled politician spearheading the opposition movement against Mr Putin's United Russia party, which he labelled as a place for "crooks and thieves".
Mr Navalny's apparent poisoning comes amid an already difficult year for Mr Putin domestically in which his popularity has dipped to an all-time low of 59%. His lacklustre response to the coronavirus crisis and amendments to the constitution which will allow him to rule until at least 2036 has fuelled historic anti-government protests in the country's far-eastern Khabarovsk region. Mr Navalny was a staunch ally of this movement and had been travelling in Siberia to muster support for opposition candidates ahead of local elections next month hoping Mr Putin's chosen candidate would be ousted from power.
Besides domestic woes, Mr Putin is also facing pressure to handle the mounting political crisis in neighbouring Belarus -- historically under Russia's sphere of influence -- where a mass rebellion against the 26-year regime of Alexander Lukashenko is gaining strength. Perhaps, a combination of such circumstances may have triggered fears of a Ukraine-like popular uprising in Russia, prompting Moscow to send a stern warning and reminder to all its opponents.
But could that really be reason enough? While Mr Putin has shown no hesitation in striking foes at home and abroad, he had largely tolerated Mr Navalny's campaign against him.
Moreover, Mr Putin is not the only enemy Mr Navalny had to fear. His exposes of corruption at the very top, including a YouTube documentary on how former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev embezzled US$1.2 billion (37.8 billion baht), earned him a lengthy list of enemies ranging from governors, prosecutors, to oligarchs. Any of them could have had seized the opportunity to settle personal scores and protect their economic interests but it's unlikely they could do so without prior approval from the very top of the food chain.
If Mr Navalny indeed has been poisoned, the team at the Berlin hospital where he has been transferred have a tough task ahead of them. Shadowy figures in Russia have perfected the art of administering invisible and untraceable toxins, either to warn or to silence forever.
While it's still too early to know whether Mr Navalny will survive and recover, it's highly unlikely we will ever discover the truth.
However, it is still not too late for Mr Putin and by extension the Kremlin to prove their innocence and critics wrong. If Mr Putin wants to retain a semblance of legitimacy given the brewing unrest, he must come forward and provide sufficient evidence that the government had no hand in Mr Navalny's alleged poisoning.
Remember, the likes of Litvinenko and Mr Skripal were spies but Mr Navalny is a vocal government critic who holds cards Mr Putin might not want to be revealed. If Mr Navalny's condition is handled improperly, it will become a political boomerang that will undoubtedly come back and haunt Mr Putin moving forward.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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