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Russian Opposition Leader In Hospital After Suspected Poisoning

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Being in the opposition in Russian politics is dangerous business, and today we are getting reports that Alexei Navalny - President Vladimir Putin's most vocal critic - may have been poisoned while on a flight from Siberia back to Moscow. Let's turn to NPR's Moscow correspondent, Lucian Kim. Lucian, what do we know at this point?

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Well, we have the fullest account from his press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, who was traveling with Alexei Navalny, who apparently was doing one of his anti-corruption investigations out in Siberia. She says he had a cup of tea at the airport before they boarded their flight back to Moscow, and that's where he got sick. The plane had to make an emergency landing in the city of Omsk, and he was immediately taken to the hospital.

Yarmysh says the doctors are being tight-lipped about his condition. But one doctor did come out and talk to reporters. He said Navalny is in serious but stable condition in the intensive care unit. But he said poisoning is only one possible diagnosis. Yarmysh, however, says Navalny is in a coma. She's also been tweeting that there are more police in the hospital (laughter) than doctors.

GREENE: Wow. I mean, can you just remind us about Navalny and his story?

KIM: Sure. Navalny is a 44-year-old lawyer from Moscow who's really made a career out of exposing corruption in state companies and among government officials. And he's also turned into a protest leader. He has a very breezy style and this huge social media following. And in 2018, he actually tried to run against President Putin in elections. He was barred from running.

But he's still around making these investigations and also very targeted attacks on members of Putin's elite, which have made him (laughter) very unpopular among Russia's ruling class. He's also been attacked before. A couple of years ago, he was doused with this green disinfectant liquid that caused damage to one of his eyes. And last year, when he was in jail for protesting, he got sick, and his team says already then he was poisoned.

GREENE: I mean, I don't want to speculate too much, but we should say there's a long list of opposition figures in Russia who have died or been murdered under mysterious circumstances. If Navalny were to join that list, what would be the impact on Russian politics?

KIM: Well, it would be a huge loss for the opposition. What Navalny has done or accomplished is really energize a new generation of Russians who have only known Putin as their president. And Navalny has shown them how to organize at the grassroots level, how to investigate corruption, and how to harness social media also for fundraising purposes.

It's really interesting. Some of the young political activists I've been talking to recently, in a way, already see Alexei Navalny as a has-been, but they do credit him with showing them the way.

GREENE: Is Putin under any real challenge at this point? I mean, I know you've been reporting on some fairly large protests, like, in the eastern part of the country. But is he facing a real challenge?

KIM: Well, that's a thing, especially if you look at someone like Alexei Navalny. He has a huge following on social media. He's the outstanding opposition leader, but his role, in fact, today, is much more of a gadfly than someone who could just come and unseat Putin in an election. But at the same time, there is that new generation of Russians that's coming of age and that is not happy with the status quo.

GREENE: NPR's Lucian Kim for us in Moscow. Lucian, thanks as always.

KIM: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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