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Alexei Navalny Was Poisoned With Novichok Nerve Agent, Merkel Says

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Germany's government says Russia's most prominent opposition leader has been poisoned with a Soviet-era nerve agent. Late last month, Alexei Navalny fell ill on a domestic flight headed to Moscow. His spokesperson says the last thing she saw him drink was a cup of tea at the airport. After several days in a Russian hospital, Navalny was medevaced to Berlin, where he has remained in a medically induced coma.

The German government is now saying he was poisoned with Novichok. This is a poison that was also used two years ago on a Russian spy who had defected to the U.K. Two of NPR's international correspondents, Lucian Kim in Moscow and Rob Schmitz in Berlin, are covering different angles of this story. And they join us now. Thanks to both of you for being here.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Rob, I want to start with you. The German announcement came from the very top, Chancellor Merkel herself. What did she say?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. Unusually strong words from Chancellor Merkel - she said Alexei Navalny is a victim of a crime that was intended to silence him. She said she condemned this crime and that the poisoning of Navalny goes against Germany and Europe's basic values and laws. She then had some words for Russia's government. And here's what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: She's saying here that serious questions remain unanswered, and only the Russian government can and must answer them. She ended by saying that Germany will consult its EU and NATO partners on an appropriate, joint reaction.

MARTIN: And what about Alexei Navalny himself, Rob? What are the doctors saying about his condition?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. Doctors at Berlin's Charite Hospital say Navalny remains in serious condition. He's in a medically induced coma, as you mentioned, in an intensive care unit. Doctors did say that, over time, they've detected less and less poison in his system. But it's too early to tell what the long-term effects of this will be on him.

MARTIN: So Lucian, over to you in Moscow. How's the Kremlin reacted to Chancellor Merkel's statement?

KIM: Well, as to suggestions that have already been made that the Kremlin may be behind the poisoning, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman says he sees no reason why anyone would blame the Russian government. He said he isn't competent to comment on the German doctor's conclusions. And he's basically repeating what the Kremlin has been saying all along, namely that the Russian doctors who initially treated Navalny didn't find any poison in his body. He said in the past that there doesn't even need to be an investigation until it's been proven that Navalny was poisoned.

The Russian Foreign Ministry is saying German officials are not cooperating with their Russian counterparts. And they're even suggesting that this announcement in Germany could be a pretext for new sanctions against Russia. This is basically almost exactly the same thing we heard a couple of years ago after the poisoning of a former Russian spy in England.

MARTIN: Right. So Lucian, I mean, who do people in Russia think was behind this attack?

KIM: Yeah, right. Well, it depends on whom you ask, of course. Supporters of the opposition are sure Putin or one of his cronies is behind the attack. Navalny has made a lot of enemies among Russia's ruling class with his investigations into their property and wealth, which he then broadcasts on his YouTube channel. But on the other hand, Navalny's following is largely among young and urban Russians, supporters of President Putin. And there are still - many of them will see this poisoning as some kind of provocation staged by Russia's nefarious enemies. One of the scientists who developed this Novichok nerve agent calls the German's conclusion absolute nonsense. And he's even suggesting that Navalny may have been poisoned in Germany to cast blame on Russia.

MARTIN: So Rob, this follows German allegations that Russia was behind a recent murder in Berlin. Can you tell us about that and how it's affecting the overall relationship between these two countries?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. A year ago, a Russian man assassinated a former Chechen military commander at a park in broad daylight here in Berlin. German prosecutors say there is strong evidence Russia was behind that. And Germany expelled Russian diplomats late last year as a response to that. Merkel's also frustrated with Russia because Germany believes Russian intelligence hacked her personal email. And another point of contention here is that Merkel has taken a firm stance on the unrest in Belarus. And that's irked Putin, who warned her and the EU not to interfere in Belarus' domestic affairs. But behind this contentious political relationship is a crucial economic one. Germany depends on Russia for more than a third of its natural gas. And that dependence...

MARTIN: Right.

SCHMITZ: ...Is going to grow as another pipeline comes into play.

MARTIN: Lucian, I mean, you talked about the suppositions that Russians might make about who's responsible for Navalny's poisoning. But, I mean, how much do they even hear about it in the first place?

KIM: Well, this story definitely resonates, maybe the most immediate way is that the national currency, the ruble, took its biggest hit against the dollar in almost half a year over fears of new sanctions. Lots of Russians hold their savings in dollars. And even if they don't, people absolutely hear about this story even on the state television. Though, obviously, it's not the top story. And Navalny is referred to as a blogger instead of an opposition leader. The Kremlin isn't hiding this story. In fact, it fits into this larger narrative of the Kremlin - of the West ganging up against Russia.

MARTIN: And Rob, what about the U.S. in all this? Has there been any response from the Trump administration?

SCHMITZ: Not yet. And here in Berlin, this lack of a response from the Trump administration doesn't seem to be that surprising to them. Germany's relations with the U.S. are not great due to President Trump's constant criticism of Germany, whether it's for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project that I mentioned or for what Trump feels is Germany's small contribution to NATO. You know, I think it's fair to say that many key figures in Germany's government will be watching the U.S. election with keen interest.

MARTIN: NPR's Rob Schmitz reporting from Berlin and Lucian Kim with us from Moscow. Thanks to you both. We appreciate it.

KIM: Thank you.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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