Putin foe Navalny to return to Russia

AAP
Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny faces a mixed reception on his return to Moscow.
Camera IconRussian opposition activist Alexei Navalny faces a mixed reception on his return to Moscow.

Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny is due to fly back to Russia for the first time since he was poisoned last August, 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 on Wednesday his decision to return from Germany, saying he missed Moscow and was not interested in what he called fabricated criminal cases against him.

A day later, the Russian capital's prison service said it would arrest him once he returned, accusing him of flouting the terms of a suspended prison sentence for embezzlement, a 2014 case Navalny insists was trumped up.

Navalny, who is hoping for success in Russia's parliamentary elections in September, faces potential trouble in three other criminal cases too, all of which he says are politically motivated.

The 44-year-old is expected to arrive 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.

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.

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.

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 weather and more than 4,500 new coronavirus cases a day in the Russian capital.

The Moscow prosecutor's office, which says it has officially warned 15 pro-Navalny organisers, 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.

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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