Kremlin Critic Navalny Braves Arrest With Return From Germany
Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny plans to fly home from Berlin, where he’s been recovering from a poisoning attack he blames on the Kremlin, facing arrest on arrival and heralding fresh confrontation between Moscow and the West.
Navalny, 44, whom Russian authorities have vowed to detain as soon as they can for violating the terms of a suspended jail sentence, said last week he plans to fly to Moscow Sunday. He could face up to several years in prison.
The Kremlin critic, whose anti-corruption exposes and success in galvanizing anti-government votes have increasingly needled the authorities, had vowed to return after the poisoning he and Western capitals blamed on President Vladimir Putin and his government.
The expected move to imprison the most prominent opponent of the Russian president would mark an escalation in the Kremlin’s steadily growing crackdown on opponents. Coming days before U.S. President-elect Joe Biden takes office, it could trigger an immediate clash with the new Democratic administration.
Read More: Putin, Poison and the Importance of Alexey Navalny: QuickTake
Navalny’s return comes as political tensions are rising in Russia ahead of parliamentary elections this autumn and support for the Kremlin falters amid the coronavirus downturn. Putin, 68, whose two-decade rule makes him the longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, last year overturned term limits which would allow him to stay in power until 2036. Still,speculation that he may step down far sooner is building up in the elite.
‘Symbol of Resistance’
“There were only two choices for Navalny — to stay in Germany or come home. If he remained an emigré, in Russia people would quickly lose interest in him,” said Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. “His calculation is he’ll become a symbol of resistance behind bars and a big risk for Putin.”
Russia’s penitentiary service issued an arrest warrant for Navalny after accusing him of violating the conditions of a 3 1/2 year suspended fraud sentence by not appearing in person for regular summons. It asked a Moscow court on Jan. 11 to replace it with a prison term, though no hearing has yet been set. The opposition politician also potentially facesseparate charges of embezzlement punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The highest-profile jailing of a Putin foe until Navalny happened in 2003, when armed officers snatched then billionaire oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky in his private jet in Siberia after he defied the Kremlin with his opposition financing. He spent a decade in prison on fraud convictions before Putin pardoned him and sent him to Germany. Russia’s one-time richest man now campaigns for the overthrow of the Russian leader from self-exile in London.
While for years Navalny was repeatedly jailed for weeks at a time and faced assaults on the street — at one point nearly losing his eye — the poisoning attack marked the most serious attempt to kill him. Russia denied any involvement and said it found no proof the opposition politician was poisoned, accusing him of fabricating it as part of working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
With Navalny ignoring the threat to arrest him, the Russian authorities’ response looks set to further sour ties with a once-close partner, Germany, and other European states led by France.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country offered treatment to Navalny after his near-fatal poisoning in August during a campaign trip to Siberia, visited him in hospital and provided personal security guarantees. The European Union in October sanctioned six Russian officials over the use of the banned Novichok chemical weapon.
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