Germany’s ex-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has questioned whether leading Russian opposition activist Alexey Navalny was poisoned with a Soviet-era nerve agent, as the German government maintains and testing labs in France and Sweden have determined.
According to Der Spiegel, Schroder said in a podcast he produces that the German government’s assessment is “essentially speculation” and claimed that “there are no reliable facts” establishing that Navalny was poisoned when returning to Moscow from an August trip to Siberia.
Der Spiegel said Schroeder called on the German government to agree to the joint investigation proposed by Russia and hand over all data in Navalny’s case.
Schroder’s claim that “there are no reliable facts” establishing that Navalny was poisoned is misleading.
Apart from a specialized laboratory in Germany, two independent facilities in France and Sweden tested Navalny’s samples and reported the presence of Novichok, a class of military grade nerve agents that were developed by the Soviet Union.
Russia has denied any involvement in Navalny’s illness and disputed that he was poisoned. Instead, Russian narratives of what happened to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critic have included self-poisoning, metabolic disorder, alcohol poisoning and a drug overdose.
Most recently, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia has “intelligence” that Navalny was working with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. (In response, Navalny said the claim is false and that he will sue for defamation.)
Navalny, 44, is out of the hospital and recovering in Berlin, where he was taken for treatment that involved inducing a coma. German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced in September that there was “unequivocal proof” Navalny was poisoned in what she termed an effort to silence him.
“This raises very difficult questions that only the Russian government can answer, and has to answer,” Merkel said.
Schroeder reportedly developed a close friendship with Putin during his time as Germany’s chancellor. He currently serves as the head of the board of directors of the Nord Stream AG pipeline construction company, which built two natural gas pipelines from Russia to Germany. He is also chairman of the supervisory board of Rosneft, the Russia oil giant.
Nord Stream AG’s sister company Nord Stream 2 AG, which is wholly owned by Russia’s giant natural gas monopoly Gazprom, is in charge of a 746-mile-long pipeline project to bring natural gas from Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea. The $11 billion project is nearly complete but has been hobbled by sanctions the U.S. has imposed or threatened due to fears over European dependence on Russian energy and “threats to U.S. national security and foreign policy interests.”
Some German politicians have suggested canceling the Nord Stream 2 project in retaliation for the Navalny poisoning. The New York Times quoted a member of Germany’s parliament, Norbert Rottgen, as saying: “We need to respond with the only language that Putin understands, the language of natural gas.”
Schroeder’s description of Navalny’s poisoning as “speculation” unsubstantiated by “reliable facts” echoes claims made by Russian officials, who have demanded that Germany provide medical information, including biological samples, to support their poisoning claim.
According to a Deutsche Welle report, Christian Democrats and the Green Party politicians have called on Schroeder step down from "all his positions in Russia," accusing him of "lobbying for the Kremlin."
Novichok is categorized as a chemical weapon of mass destruction and is prohibited by the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). As such, Germany views the Navalny case as a violation of “international law prohibiting the use of chemical weapons” and thus “sees no reason” for handing evidence over to Russia, the German government’s deputy spokeswoman Martina Fietz has said.
Germany shared samples and data from the Navalny case with the OPCW, which conducts its own lab tests.
Merkel has been a supporter of Nord Stream 2.
"I don't think it is appropriate to link this business-operated project with the Navalny question," Merkel said, responding to suggestions that Navalny’s case could be an “opportunity” for her to shift her views.
For his part, Navalny blames the Russian president for his poisoning.
“I believe, unconditionally, that behind an attempt on my life stands Putin personally,” Navalny wrote on Oct. 1. “Who else could give an order to those 2-3 bosses of special services who have in their disposition Novichok and people skilled in using it?”