Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny will fly back to Russia on Sunday for the first time since he was poisoned last summer, despite the authorities’ stated desire to arrest him and possibly imprison him for several years.
Navalny, one of President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent domestic critics, announced his decision to return from Germany on Wednesday, saying he missed Moscow and was not interested in what he called new fabricated criminal cases against him.
A day later, the Russian capital’s prison service said it would do anything to arrest him when he returned, accusing him of violating the terms of a suspended prison sentence for embezzlement, a case in 2014 that he says was trumped.
Navalny, hoping for success in the September parliamentary elections, faces potential problems in three other criminal cases, all of which are politically motivated.
His return is a hassle for the Kremlin: imprison him and risk protests and punitive Western action by turning him into a political martyr. Or do nothing and risk looking weak in the eyes of the Kremlin hardliners.
Navalny, 44, is expected to fly from Berlin, where he was flown in August for emergency medical treatment after being poisoned by what German tests showed was a nerve agent in Novichok, and to arrive in Moscow on Sunday 1620 GMT.
Opposition politicians, who say he has almost completely recovered, say Putin was behind his poisoning. The Kremlin denies involvement, saying it has seen no evidence that he was poisoned and that he is free to return to Russia.
Navalny says the Kremlin is afraid of him. The Kremlin, which only refers to him as the “Berlin patient”, laughs at it. Putin’s allies point to opinion polls that show that the Russian leader is much more popular than Navalny, whom they call a blogger rather than a politician.
Supporters plan to visit Navalny
Navalny has said he will take a flight operated by the Russian airline Pobeda, which is owned by the state-run Aeroflot.
His supporters plan to meet him at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport despite a forecast of bitterly cold minus 17 Celsius (1 Fahrenheit) weather and over 4,500 new cases of coronavirus a day in the Russian capital.
So far, at least 2,000 people have used a Facebook page to say they plan to be there, with another 6,000 expressing an interest. Pro-Kremlin activists are also expected to show up.
The Moscow prosecutor’s office, which says it has officially warned 15 pro-Navalny organizers, has said the event is illegal because it is not sanctioned by the authorities. This means that people who show up can be detained, fined or imprisoned.
Referring to COVID-19 restrictions, the airport has said it will not allow media inside.
A Moscow court on Saturday ordered a Navalny ally, Pavel Zelensky, to be remanded in custody on charges of extremism, which he denies.
Near his return, Navalny took to Facebook to thank the Germans for what he described as their stereotypical friendly hospitality over the past five months.
“Thank you friends!”, He wrote in German.