Navalny heads to a hospital... finally

(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Over the weekend, we learned that Russian dissident Alexei Navalny was pretty much on death’s doorstep following nearly three weeks on a hunger strike that resulted in a condition that could produce a heart attack at any moment. At the time, I wondered about two things. First, would Navalny actually continue with his protest until he died, making himself a martyr in the fight against Vladimir Putin’s corrupt regime? And second, would the Russian government do anything to prevent that since Putin obviously wants him dead anyway? Both of those questions appear to have been answered last night. The famed Putin critic is being moved to another prison with full hospital services and Navalny has agreed to begin undergoing a regimen of vitamins to provide him with some level of nutrition.

The Russian state penitentiary service said Monday a decision has been made to transfer imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is in the third week of a hunger strike, to a hospital.

The announcement comes two days after Navalny’s physician said his health was deteriorating rapidly and the 44-year-old Kremlin critic could be on the verge of death.

The state prison service, FSIN, said in a statement that Navalny would be transferred to a hospital for convicts located in another penal colony in Vladimir, a city 180 kilometers (110 miles) east of Moscow. According to the statement, Navalny’s condition is deemed “satisfactory” and he has agreed to take vitamin therapy.

Reading further into the details, it sounds as if the decision to taper off the hunger strike wasn’t originally Navalny’s idea. He released a statement through his attorneys saying that prison officials had informed him that they were going to put him in a straightjacket and begin force-feeding him “imminently” unless he cooperated. I suppose the prospect of some intravenous vitamin therapy sounded better than having a tube shoved down his throat. But it’s also a fairly clear indicator that the Russian government didn’t want to wind up with Navalny’s blood on their hands in such a public fashion… or at least not yet.

The timing of these events is probably not coincidental. On Wednesday, Vladimir Putin is scheduled to give his annual state of the nation address. Alexei Navalny’s supporters are already calling for massive protests in the streets on that day, causing embarrassment for the Kremlin just as Putin is telling everyone how wonderfully everything is going. Putin has already declared these protests to be illegal and thousands of Navalny’s supporters have been arrested, including his wife and his brother. (Both were later released.)

While Putin has clearly grown tired of his relentless critic, he seems to possess at least enough self-restraint to not take out Navalny in such a crude and obvious fashion with the eyes of the world upon him. Keep in mind that before heading off to serve his sentence, Navalny joked with his supporters, saying he had no plans to commit suicide, that he would be “very careful” going up and down staircases, and that he had “the cardiovascular system of a cosmonaut,” so people shouldn’t believe any stories about him suddenly having a heart attack. That last bit is particularly ironic since cardiac arrest was one of the dangers his own doctor was warning about over the weekend.

I still wouldn’t be very confident that Alexei Navalny is out of the woods. Transferring him from one Russian prison to another doesn’t guarantee that the treatment he’ll be receiving will be much better. And it’s a virtual certainty that Putin ordered Navalny’s assassination once already, so he’s unlikely to give up on his plans entirely. He’s probably just waiting for a less inconvenient time and hoping the national and global attention being paid to Navalny’s situation will die down a bit.