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Is Putin’s ‘paranoia’ to blame for apparent poisoning of Russian opposition leader?

Russia’s leading opposition figure is seriously ill in a Siberian hospital, the victim of a possible poisoning. Alexei Navalny is a crusading anti-corruption activist and aspiring politician who has been a thorn in President Vladimir Putin’s side for years. Nick Schifrin reports and talks to Catherine Belton, investigative correspondent for Reuters and author of a recently released book on Russia.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Russia's leading opposition figure lies seriously ill in a Siberian hospital tonight, the victim of a possible poisoning.

    Alexei Navalny is a crusading anti-corruption activist, aspiring politician, and has been a thorn in the side of Vladimir Putin and his lieutenants for a decade.

    Here now, Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On a video posted to a Russian news site, the conscience of the opposition unconscious on a stretcher.

    Alexei Navalny had been on a domestic flight, when a passenger filmed him moaning in agony. He was rushed to this remote hospital in Siberia and put on a ventilator. His spokeswoman said his tea had been poisoned. Doctors called his condition stable, but serious.

  • Man (through translator):

    Doctors are really working on saving his life.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The 44-year-old lawyer is the country's most prominent opposition figure. He calls the ruling United Russia party the party of crooks and thieves.

  • Alexei Navalny (through translator):

    We do not owe the government anything. It is the government who owes us. They build an authoritarian regime that doesn't give anything back.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He's an anti-corruption crusader whose most famous video exposed mansions, yachts, and land he said belonged to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

  • Alexei Navalny (through translator):

    Medvedev can steal so much and so openly because Putin does the same, but on a greater scale. The system is so rotten, there's nothing healthy left.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He's inspired some of the largest protests in modern Russian history, and suffered from government targeting, a possible previous poisoning attempt, arrests that blocked him from running for office.

    He's been doused with milk by Kremlin allies, who beat up his staff, and an assailant sprayed him with green dye and chemicals.

  • Alexei Navalny (through translator):

    Even if I look like this, does that mean that we will accept money has been stolen and used to buy yachts? I don't think so.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Russia, the list of political assassinations and attempts is long. In 2006, crusading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered.

    Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who accused Putin of ordering Politkovskaya's death, was killed in London by radioactive tea. In 2018, former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned in the U.K. They survived.

    The most infamous recent example, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov shot dead on a bridge next to the Kremlin in 2015. Nemtsov's deputy, Vladimir Kara-Murza, told me in 2017 he was poisoned twice.

  • Vladimir Kara-Murza (through translator):

    Within a space of 15 to 20 minutes, I went from feeling completely normal, like I am now, to having a really rapid heart rate, sweating, palpitation, started vomiting, and then I just lost consciousness.

    Kidneys, I think, went first. Then it was the heart, the lungs, the stomach, the liver, everything. Everything just shut down. So I have no doubt that this was a deliberate attempt to murder, based on my political activities, motivated by my activities in the Russian opposition.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tonight, the Kremlin's spokesman talk of poisoning of Navalny — quote — "speculation."

    For more on all this, we turned to Catherine Belton. She lived in Moscow for 15 years, is now an investigative correspondent for Reuters. She's the author of the recently released "Putin's People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West."

    Catherine Belton, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    I laid out a long list of Kremlin critics who've ended up dead or targeted. Navalny says he's been targeted before. Why this attack now?

  • Catherine Belton:

    It certainly looks like it's a sign of the Kremlin's increasing paranoia.

    I think they're watching events in Belarus with complete horror. It's kind of their worst nightmare, what's happening there, this sudden show of people power, the power of the people. And people are sort of shedding off their fear of the regime, and they're protesting en masse.

    And I think that the Kremlin is watching very warily. And there are great parallels between Lukashenko's rule in Belarus and President Putin's as well.

    And at the same time as this has been going on in Belarus, Navalny has been traveling about Russia's regions ahead of local elections next month. He's been tweeting enthusiastic support for the protests in Belarus. He tweeted — one tweet was: Would you like Belarus here? Here's a list of candidates for the elections next month.

    He's also been expressing enthusiastic support for the strikes in Belarus, where workers have gone on strike. It's a very powerful tactic, he said, for strangling the regime, which is more powerful, especially when protesters are being beaten up.

    And we know that he's had talks with Russian trade union leaders in the past.

    So, I think the Kremlin is sending a very strong signal to Navalny, so that he could back off, and anyone else in the opposition who would think of picking up the mantle. I think the Kremlin is just increasingly paranoid, and it's acting with impunity to protect its interests.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You talked about other opposition figures picking up the mantle.

    There are large protests in the far east in Russia. How much of a threat do they pose to Putin?

  • Catherine Belton:

    I think Putin is really entering uncharted territory now for his rule.

    He's been blessed with good luck for most of his presidency. The first two terms of his presidency had fast rising oil prices, which helped him really improve living standards for the population. And then he was able — once the economy was flagging, he was able to pull off the annexation in Crimea, which garnered wide support from the population and boosted his ratings.

    But now he's facing not just a stagnating economy, but Russia's economy is also entering into a deep recession, not just because of the pandemic, but also because of low oil prices and because of the very poor investment climate, because sort of President Putin's operatives have been scaring off any businessmen that want to invest, because their businesses can be seized from them at any minute by the security services.

    So he's really facing a kind of new world for him, where, sort of, in a couple of months' time, there have been predicted sort of waves of bankruptcies following the lockdown and the low oil prices.

    And it really could be that he could face sort of greater unrest. He's already facing the longest-running and biggest protest of his rule in Russia's far east, where the population is unhappy at how the Kremlin has tried to very heavy-handedly remove a popular local governor by jailing him.

    So, these protests in Khabarovsk, Russia's far east, are already in their sixth week. So, things are, all of a sudden, looking quite tricky for Putin, after a very long time of being able to get away with all kinds of things.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Catherine Belton, we will have to leave it there.

    The book is called "Putin's People."

    Thank you very much.

  • Catherine Belton:

    Thank you for having me on.

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