The Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny is “unconscious” in hospital after allegedly being poisoned with a toxic substance in his tea, according to his press secretary.
Navalny, 44, an outspoken critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin, was reported to be returning to Moscow by plane from Tomsk in Siberia when began to feel ill, his press secretary, Kira Yarmish, said on Twitter.
The plane made an emergency landing in Omsk and he was taken to hospital where is was unconscious on Thursday morning in intensive care, she said.
“We assume that Alexei was poisoned with something mixed into his tea. That was the only thing he drank this morning. The doctors say that the toxin was absorbed more quickly because of the hot liquid. Right now Alexei is unconscious,” she added.
Yarmysh drew a parallel with an incident last year in which Navalny suffered an acute allergic reaction one doctor said could have resulted from poisoning with an unknown chemical.
Navalny, who has campaigned against Putin’s rule for years, has used the Belarus protests against its president, Alexander Lukashenko, to try to persuade Russians to back candidates he supports in local elections involving 40 million voters next month.
In a recent appearance on his YouTube channel, Navalny spoke excitedly of how successful strikes by key workers in Belarus had forced authorities to start engaging with protesters.
Video clips of Belarusian workers declaring they had voted for the opposition accompanying his commentary were labelled “Russia of the future”.
One of his aides, Leonid Volkov, said he and fellow activists were monitoring the Belarusian authorities’ tactics. “We’re carefully watching Lukashenko’s attempts to switch off the internet,” Volkov wrote on Twitter. “It’s really important because without doubt the same things await us in Russia.”
Activists believe they may face a Belarusian scenario when Putin comes up for re-election in 2024 after he successfully got the constitution changed to allow him to run again for president twice.
“In today’s Belarus we can see ourselves in the near future,” said opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov. “The opposition candidate gets 80% and the dictator is struggling to get 10%, but the election commission simply swaps the results.”
There are signs that the Kremlin was alive to the potential threat from the Belarus protests. State-backed media, after initially depicting the Belarusian opposition in a sympathetic light, have begun to change tack, talking of foreign meddling, a purported long-standing Polish interest in dominating the region, and “coloured revolutions” – a reference to previous uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine.