Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny has flown home to Russia despite Russian authorities’ stated desire to arrest him and potentially jail him for years, his plane from Berlin landing at a different Moscow airport from the one it was meant to fly to.
It was the first time Navalny has been back home since he was poisoned last summer. His plane was diverted to another Moscow airport at the last minute in an apparent effort by authorities to thwart journalists and supporters greeting him on Sunday.
His plane had been meant to arrive at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport, but landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport instead. The flight was operated by Russian airline Pobeda, owned by state-controlled Aeroflot.
Navalny, one of President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent domestic critics, was flown to Berlin in August last year for emergency medical treatment after being poisoned with what German tests showed was a Novichok nerve agent.
“This is the best moment in the last five months,” he told reporters after he boarded the plane in the German capital, bound for Moscow. “I feel great. Finally, I’m returning to my home town.”
He announced his decision to return from Germany on Wednesday, and a day later Moscow’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.
The 44-year-old, who boarded a plane in Berlin at the last minute from a car sitting on the tarmac, hence avoiding other passengers, made light of the risk of being arrested.
He said he did not think he would be arrested, calling himself an innocent person.
“What do I need to be afraid of? What bad thing can happen to me in Russia?” he added. “I feel like a citizen of Russia who has every right to return,” he added.
He was accompanied by his wife Yulia, and his spokeswoman.
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.
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.
Flight to Moscow
Some of his supporters gathered at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport despite bitterly cold minus 20 Celsius weather and over 4,500 new coronavirus cases a day in the Russian capital.
Before Sunday, at least 2,000 people used used a Facebook page to say they plan to be there, with another 6,000 expressing an interest. Pro-Kremlin activists were also expected to turn up.
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.
Ivan Zhdanov, the head of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, said on Twitter that opposition politician Lyubov Sobol was among four key allies detained at Moscow airport on Sunday.
Al Jazeera’s Aleksandra Godfroid, reporting from Moscow, said there was a heavy police presence at the airport, as well as a number of prison transportation vans, and that police had cleared people without tickets to travel from the airport terminal.
“[Navalny’s] decision to return, despite the threat of a long jail sentence, is seen here as a brave move and an explicit challenge to the authorities. It is also seen as a boost to the opposition,” she said.
However, Godfroid said Navalny could have struggled to maintain his political support if he had remained abroad for a long period of time.
“With his move [to return] he also wants to say to the opposition here, to his supporters, and also to the Kremlin that he is not scared and he is not going to step back and hide.”
Maria Lipman, senior associate at the George Washington University in Moscow, told Al Jazeera that the authorities wanted to minimise the publicity of Navalny returning but she also downplayed Navalny’s role as an opposition leader.
“There is no such thing as an ‘opposition’ in Russia in terms of a party or a movement. There are supporters [of Navalny], there are critically minded people who sympathise with him, who admire his courage and his fearlessness, his self-sacrificial behaviour,” she said.
Lipman said Navalny was likely willing to be arrested with an eye to the future.
“He probably believes that the situation might change, that the regime will weaken, and his following with supporters will get more active,” she said.
“He has proven so many times that he believes in the future and he believes in this country, there was no reason for him to abandon his faith now.”