MOSCOW, Jan 17 (Reuters) — Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny is due to 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 potentially jail him for 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 everything to arrest him once he returned, accusing him of flouting the terms of a suspended prison sentence for embezzlement, a 2014 case he says was trumped up.
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Navalny, who is hoping for success in parliamentary elections in September, faces potential trouble in three other criminal cases too, all of which he says are politically motivated.
His return poses a conundrum for the Kremlin: jail 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 Kremlin hardliners.
Navalny, 44, is expected to fly from Berlin, where he was flown in August for emergency medical treatment after being poisoned with what German tests showed was a Novichok nerve agent, and to arrive in Moscow on Sunday at 1620 GMT.
The opposition politician, who says he has nearly fully recovered, says Putin was behind his poisoning. The Kremlin denies involvement, says it has seen no evidence that he was poisoned, and that he is free to return to Russia.
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Navalny says the Kremlin is afraid of him. The Kremlin, which only refers to him as the “Berlin patient,” laughs that off. Putin allies point to opinion polls that show the Russian leader is far more popular than Navalny, whom they call a blogger rather than a politician.
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Navalny has said he will take a flight operated by Russian airline Pobeda, owned by state-controlled 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 coronavirus cases 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 turn up.
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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. That means that people who turn up could be detained, fined or jailed.
Citing 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 held in pre-trial detention on extremism charges which he denies.
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On the eve of his return, Navalny took to Facebook to thank Germans for what he described as their stereotype-breaking friendly hospitality in the last five months.
“Thank you friends!,” he wrote in German.
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn Editing by Frances Kerry)