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Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny To Remain In Russia After Suspected Poisoning

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Russia's leading opposition figure is in a coma. Staff for Alexei Navalny believed someone poisoned the tea he drank at an airport cafe before he boarded a domestic flight in Siberia. The United States has made no official statement about this, although White House National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien spoke on Fox News.

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ROBERT O'BRIEN: He's a very courageous man. He's a very courageous politician to have stood up to Putin inside Russia. And our thoughts and our prayers are with him and his family.

INSKEEP: Let's go to NPR Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim. Hey there, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Critical question, where is Navalny? And who's treating him?

KIM: Alexei Navalny right now is in a hospital in the Siberian city of Omsk, which is more than 1,000 miles east of Moscow. He's there because he was on a plane flying back to Moscow when he fell unconscious. And the plane had to make an emergency landing there. He's in a coma, as you mentioned. He's hooked up to a ventilator in the intensive care unit.

Navalny's press secretary says the hospital is not properly equipped and that his life is in danger. The doctors there say they have found no trace of poison and that he's been diagnosed with some kind of metabolic disease caused by low blood sugar. This is really contradictory information because officials have told Navalny's colleagues that, in fact, a toxic substance had been found and that it's so poisonous that people around him have to wear protective suits.

INSKEEP: Wow, which is something you wouldn't miss if you were there. But I guess this is a moment to note he's still inside Russia. We, therefore, don't really have independent information about his condition or an independent way to verify this doctor's claim that there's no poison. Wasn't he supposed to be moved out of Russia?

KIM: Exactly. I mean, that's what Navalny's people have been trying to get since yesterday. They say that all the permits were about to be issued. And at the very last minute, the doctors there in Omsk refused to let him be transported. Navalny's wife Yulia, who traveled to Siberia, says the doctors are stalling basically in the hope that this poison in his body will break down and that any clues will be lost.

INSKEEP: Oh, if he moved to another country, his body itself would be potentially evidence against Russian President Vladimir Putin, who's had quite a number of political opponents - well, they were poisoned in various ways over the years.

KIM: That's right.

INSKEEP: So what leverage does Germany have to get him out if Germany is where he would go?

KIM: Well, Germany does have leverage. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has a very cool relationship with President Putin. But Germany as a country has very close business ties to Russia. Just one example is the pipeline that the two countries are building connecting Russia to Germany. Yesterday, Merkel came out and said publicly she was shocked by the news of Navalny's illness and she'll insist on getting to the bottom of what exactly happened. She also said Germany was ready to provide medical treatment. And now we're hearing that there is, in fact, a plane in Omsk waiting to take him to Germany.

INSKEEP: OK, so then there's the question of whether it gets permission to take off. What does the Kremlin have to say about that?

KIM: Well, the Kremlin is really allergic to anything having to do with Alexei Navalny. Vladimir Putin doesn't even mention Navalny's name. State media has covered this a little bit. One news bulletin I saw on state TV yesterday referred to Navalny as a blogger but certainly not as a politician. Putin's spokesman has said the Kremlin is following Navalny's condition via the media and that they have nothing against him getting treatment abroad. Today he said the question of Navalny's transportation out of the country is really a decision for doctors. He also said that doctors from Germany in Omsk had been invited into the hospital.

INSKEEP: OK, Lucian, thanks.

KIM: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.