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The top strategist of late Russian opposition leader Navalny is attacked in Lithuania

Russia's Leonid Volkov, Chief of staff for the 2018 presidential election for Alexei Navalny's campaign, looks on, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, Dec. 15, 2021.
Jean-Francois Badias
Russia's Leonid Volkov, Chief of staff for the 2018 presidential election for Alexei Navalny's campaign, looks on, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, Dec. 15, 2021.

TALLINN, Estonia — Associates of late opposition leader Alexei Navalny said late Tuesday that the politician's close ally and top strategist was attacked near his home in Lithuania's capital.

Kira Yarmysh, who had been Navalny's spokesperson, said the assailant smashed a window of Leonid Volkov's car, sprayed tear gas into his eyes and started hitting him with a hammer. Volkov was later taken to a hospital, according to Navalny's ally Ivan Zhdanov.

The attack took place in Vilnius nearly a month after Navalny's unexplained death in a remote Arctic penal colony. President Vladimir Putin's fiercest critic was serving a 19-year prison term there on the charges of extremism widely seen as politically motivated.

Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner and Russia's best-known opposition politician, had been jailed since January 2021, when he returned to Moscow to face certain arrest after recuperating in Germany from nerve agent poisoning he blamed on the Kremlin. His Foundation for Fighting Corruption and a network of regional offices were designated as "extremist organizations" by the Russian government that same year.

His death, reported by penitentiary officials on Feb. 16, sent shockwaves around the globe, with opposition figures and Western leaders laying the blame on the Kremlin — something officials in Moscow vehemently rejected.

The politician's funeral in Moscow on March 1 drew thousands of supporters, a rare show of defiance in Putin's Russia amid unabating and ruthless crackdown on dissent. Those willing to pay tribute to Navalny, 47, kept streaming to his grave in southeastern Moscow for days after the ceremony. Navalny's widow Yulia has vowed to continue her late husband's work.

Volkov used to be in charge of Navalny's regional offices and election campaigns — Navalny ran for mayor of Moscow in 2013 and sought to challenge Putin in the 2018 presidential election. Volkov left Russia several years ago under pressure from the authorities.

Last year, Volkov and his team launched a project called "Navalny's Campaigning Machine," with the goal of talking to as many Russians as possible, either by phone or online, and turning them against Putin ahead of the March 15-17 presidential election.

Not long before his death, Navalny has also urged supporters to flock to the polls at noon on Sunday, the final day of voting, to demonstrate their discontent with the Kremlin. His allies have been actively promoting the strategy, dubbed "Noon Against Putin," in recent weeks.

Russian independent news outlet Meduza said it interviewed Volkov several hours before the attack and asked him about risks for Navalny's team. "The key risk is that we will all be killed," Meduza quoted Volkov as saying.

Lithuania's Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said on X, formerly Twitter, that the news about an attack on Volkov are "shocking" and stressed that the "perpetrators will have to answer for their crime."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]