France and Sweden confirm Alexei Navalny was poisoned with Novichok, Germany says

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny (file photo) - ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny (file photo) – ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

Three European laboratories have confirmed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, the German government said on Monday. 

Doctors at the Berlin hospital where Mr Navalny is being treated said earlier this month that he had been poisoned with Novichok, prompting accusations from the Kremlin that they had “rushed to conclusions”. 

“Three laboratories have now confirmed independently of one another the proof of a nerve agent of the Novichok group as the cause of Mr Navalny’s poisoning,” German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement.

He added that the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was also testing samples.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier said the use of such a substance raised “very serious questions that only the Russian government can answer” and suggested Moscow’s multi-billion-dollar Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline could be pulled if those answers are not forthcoming.

Mr Navalny, Russia’s most outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin, fell suddenly ill on a flight from Siberia to Moscow last month. 

Mr Navalny pictured before he fell ill - gluchinskiy via AP, File
Mr Navalny pictured before he fell ill – gluchinskiy via AP, File

He was taken to a Russian hospital, where doctors said they found no suggestion of poisoning and suggested he was suffering from a metabolic disorder, but transferred to Germany at the request of his family. 

Supporters laid the blame for the attack squarely on the Kremlin, and accused Russian doctors of working with authorities to cover up the poisoning. Moscow has repeatedly denied any involvement.

Mr Navalny is now out of a medically induced coma and is responding to speech, according to Berlin’s Charite hospital. 

The confirmation that Mr Navalny was poisoned with Novichok came as several of his allies won seats in Russian regional elections otherwise dominated by Kremlin candidates.

The elections for governors and regional assemblies were seen as a test for the Kremlin as the popularity of the ruling United Russia party plummets amid economic woes.

The Kremlin-backed United Russia lost its council majorities in the Siberian cities of Tomsk and Novosibirsk, where Mr Navalny was campaigning shortly before the poisoning.

Opposition politician Sergei Boiko won a council seat in Novosibirsk after calling on voters to “clean out the mafia” from Russia’s third-largest city. 

Meanwhile Ksenia Fadeyeva, the head of Mr Navalny’s office in Tomsk, said she and another opposition figure had taken local seats.

A man stands next to a screen displaying preliminary voting results - Sergei Fadeichev\TASS via Getty Images
A man stands next to a screen displaying preliminary voting results – Sergei Fadeichev\TASS via Getty Images

In his absence, Mr Navalny’s team had been running a campaign of “smart voting” in the regional elections, in which they encouraged supporters to vote for whichever candidate had the best chance of beating United Russia, whether they be from Communist or nationalist parties.

Some of Mr Navalny’s supporters have suggested he was attacked precisely because of the threat this tactic poses to the Kremlin. 

But United Russia won all other major contests.

“United Russia is forming stable majorities in all regions without exception,” party official Alexei Turchak said.

The independent election watchdog Golos however reported hundreds of irregularities in voting. Videos shared on social media showed officials hiding ballot papers and preventing monitors from accessing polling stations. 

The elections this year were held over three days rather than on a single day. Authorities insisted this was a necessary measure to stop the spread of coronavirus but critics said it increased the opportunity for electoral fraud.