Alexey Navalny to Return to Russia This Week Despite Prison Threat

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who’s been recovering in Germany from a nerve-agent attack he blames on the Kremlin, issued a challenge to President Vladimir Putin by announcing he’s coming back to Moscow Sunday.

Navalny, facing threats of jail by authorities if he enters Russia, called on supporters to meet him at one of the capital’s airports in an Instagram video post Wednesday.

Navalny’s return comes as political tensions are rising ahead of parliamentary elections this fall and support for the Kremlin falters amid the coronavirus downturn. Detaining the opposition leader could further strain relations with the incoming U.S. administration, which has already promised to deal forcefully with the alleged Russian hacking of government bodies, and the European Union.

“This is a direct political attack on Putin,” regional opposition activist Lev Shlosberg said. An arrest “will raise Navalny’s authority in society even higher and increase the risks in all upcoming elections. If the authorities decline to use force, it will be correctly understood as weakness.”

On Monday, the Federal Penitentiary Service asked a Moscow court to replace a 3 1/2 year suspended sentence with a prison term for a fraud conviction that Navalny received in 2014. The prison authority in late December warned the opposition leader, who says he was prosecuted for political reasons, that he faced imprisonment if he didn’t obey a summons to appear in person.

That threat came shortly after investigators opened a new criminal case against him for alleged fraud.

‘A Choice’

“Navalny is confronting the authorities with a choice,” said Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. “If they arrest him, he could become a martyr and if they don’t, it will anger the ranks and unsettle the state apparatus.”

A Kremlin spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

“Well done. Although he’s taking a risk,” self-exiled former billionaire tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who spent a decade in prison on what he said were politically motivated fraud and other charges after his 2003 arrest, said on Twitter.

Navalny is currently convalescing in Berlin, where he was flown for treatment after the near-fatal poisoning in August during a campaign trip to Siberia. The European Union in October sanctioned six Russian officials over the use of the banned Novichok chemical weapon. Russia has denied any involvement.

“It wasn’t my choice to come to Germany,” Navalny said. “I arrived here because they tried to kill me. Now those people are offended that they didn’t succeed in killing me and I survived, and so they’re threatening to jail me.”

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