‘Navalny’s in critical condition’ An interview with Jaka Bizilj, founder of the German non-profit evacuating Alexey Navalny to Berlin
On the evening of Friday, August 21, doctors in the Siberian city of Omsk finally agreed to evacuate opposition politician Alexey Navalny to Germany. The Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) founder is still in a coma and his exact diagnosis remains unknown. His associates believe that he was poisoned. Navalny is set to leave Omsk on Saturday morning. That said, throughout the day on Friday, local doctors insisted that he couldn’t be transported — and (according to Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh) they lied to the press at least once, claiming that the German doctors who had come to medevac Navalny agreed that he shouldn’t be moved. The plane that will fly Navalny to Berlin was arranged by the Cinema for Peace Foundation — the same organization that medevaced Mediazona publisher and “Pussy Riot” member Pyotr Verzilov to Germany when he was mysteriously poisoned in 2018. Meduza’s special correspondent Svetlana Reiter called Berlin and spoke to the Cinema for Peace Foundation’s founder, Jaka Bizilj, about Navalny’s planned evacuation.
When does Alexey Navalny’s plane leave?
You know, everyone is asking me this question, but I don’t have an answer to it. Our plane is ready to take off at any moment, everything just depends on the hospital [in Omsk, where Navalny is hospitalized].
Who reached out to you for help organizing Alexey Navalny’s evacuation from the hospital in Omsk?
[“Pussy Riot” member and Mediazona founder] Nadiya Tolokhonnikova. She called me from Los Angeles at 11 a.m. yesterday and asked for help. [Mediazona publisher and “Pussy Riot” member] Petya Verzilov called later.
Was it easy to organize the evacuation process?
From a logistical point of view it was incredibly difficult. We haven’t slept for a minute this entire time — we had to assemble a qualified team and get all of the necessary permits in a fairly short time. I’m amazed that we did it. Then, when our people flew [to Omsk], we faced difficulties that never should have [existed]. The decision to allow us to take Alexey Navalny to the Charité Hospital took much longer than we thought. But our doctors were able to convince the Russian doctors that they would be able to get Alexey Navalny [there] safe and sound — despite the fact that he is unconscious.
Your doctors saw Navalny. What do they think about the diagnosis the Russian doctors made? The doctors in Omsk are saying he’s in a hypoglycemic coma, but his family doubts this diagnosis.
It wasn’t our specialists’ job to make a diagnosis. They examined him with a single purpose — [to determine] whether or not they could take him. They said: yes, we can.
Will Navalny’s wife fly with him to Germany?
I suppose so.
What was the most difficult part of Navalny’s evacuation process?
Actually, it was everything. The amount of time, political relations between the [two] countries, the coronavirus, the search for a plane, payment...Nothing was easy.
There are rumors that you had help from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s team. Is this true?
No, we can’t confirm this. But I’m very grateful to Merkel for her speech yesterday during the meeting with [French President] Emmanuel Macron (both politicians said that their countries were prepared to treat Navalny). Once again: Merkel’s team didn’t help us, we did everything through the work of our own NGO, but the fact that Merkel showed her awareness [of the situation] during the meeting with Macron certainly helped us.
Did your team that flew to Omsk tell you why the Russian doctors refused to release Alexey Navanly from the hospital?
I don’t know [why]. Perhaps you should try contacting the Russian doctors and asking them.
But it was a surprise for you?
Definitely. After yesterday’s statements by [ Putin’s spokesman] Dmitry Peskov about the fact that the Kremlin wishes Navalny a quick recovery, as it would any Russian citizen, we were confident that there would be no problems evacuating Navalny to Berlin. We were sure that we just needed to comply with the formalities — and even this took a ton of time: we only finished preparing all of the documents at 3:00 in the morning. And at that time, at 3:00 a.m., we were sure we would fly in and bring [him back], everything [would be] quick. But it didn’t work out quickly.
What’s Navalny’s condition now?
[He’s] critical. In stable, but critical [condition]. We are expecting him in Berlin shortly.
And then what — immediate hospitalization at the Charité Hospital?
Yes. He’ll be treated there.
Sorry to ask, but who will pay for his treatment?
His friends who came to us and offered to help. But honestly we didn’t wait for them to come to us and offer financial assistance, we just started working. All of the existing evacuation bills have been paid by private individuals.
Two years ago you evacuated Pyotr Verzilov.
Yes. And both cases were pretty scary. When Pytor got to Berlin we already knew that if [his girlfriend, Pussy Riot member] Nika Nikulshina hadn’t found him in time, he would have died. It’s the same with Navalny: the doctors said that if the plane hadn’t made the emergency landing in Omsk, Navalny would have died. Both were unconscious, both were suffering. It’s awful, really.
You’re the founder of the not-for-profit Cinema for Peace Foundation. Is helping people in these kinds of situations your mission?
No. But if there’s an opportunity to help those who are in trouble, not taking it is rather strange. But really my mission is to work with directors and producers, and make films.
Translation by Eilish Hart