Russia’s prison service said it has “an order to take measures to arrest him when establishing his whereabouts.”
That means he could be detained immediately upon his return from Berlin, where he has been recovering from a nerve agent poisoning during a trip to Siberia in August. Navalny and his supporters say the attack was ordered by President Vladimir Putin — charges the Kremlin denies.
But jailing Navalny could create another conundrum for Putin’s government, analysts said. A throng of supporters are expected to greet Navalny at Vnukovo International Airport — more than 2,000 people responded “going” to one Facebook group.
Arresting him would certainly elevate his image as a political martyr among his backers. A response from Western governments, perhaps in the form of more sanctions, is also possible.
Tatiana Stanovaya, head of political analysis firm R. Politik, wrote on the Telegram messaging app that Navanly’s possible arrest would trigger protests that would test “how far [Russian security services] and the most repressive apparatus of the state can go.”
Konstantin Kalachev, who heads the Political Expert Group, a Russian think tank, told Moscow’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper that arresting Navalny would turn him into a Nelson Mandela-like figure eight months before the country’s parliamentary elections.
Ahead of Navalny’s arrival on Sunday, Moscow prosecutors issued a warning on their website urging people not to take part in an “unauthorized mass event” at Vnukovo airport. Police buses lined up outside of the airport hours before his flight was scheduled to land, and the international arrivals hall was blocked off with an opaque screen. The airport also told journalists that they would not be allowed on the property, citing coronavirus concerns.
At Berlin’s Brandenburg Airport, a handful of supporters and press waited to greet Navalny before his departure. Ekaterina Raykova-Merz and Andreas Merz-Raykov held up a sign that said, “The time of dictators has come to an end. Putin is afraid of Navalny.”
Navalny has been recovering in Germany since he became gravely ill during an Aug. 20 flight to Moscow from the Siberian city of Tomsk. After receiving initial treatment in Omsk, where the plane made an emergency landing, Navalny was transferred to a Berlin hospital, where he spent more than two weeks in a medically induced coma. He has not been back in Russia since.
The investigative website Bellingcat reported recently that it used telecommunications and travel data to show that eight Russian state security agents were in the vicinity when Navalny was poisoned in Tomsk.
The Kremlin has denied any role in Navalny’s poisoning and has rebuffed Western leaders’ calls for an investigation into what happened.
During a December news conference, Putin seemed to confirm that Navalny was being watched but denied that Moscow was responsible for his poisoning. He said with a laugh: “Who needs him anyway? If we had really wanted, we’d have finished the job.”
The government’s messaging on Navalny — baselessly alleging that he’s in cahoots with the CIA — has had some success in shaping Russian public opinion.
According to a late December poll from the independent Levada Center, 49 percent of respondents said Navalny’s poisoning was either staged or “a provocation of Western special services.” Just 15 percent answered that it was an attempt by authorities to eliminate a political opponent.
But Navalny could boost his popularity by brazenly returning to Russia despite facing imminent arrest. Other prominent activists, such as businessman Mikhail Khodorkhovsky and chess legend Garry Kasparov, continue to criticize the Kremlin, but from abroad.
Ruslan Karadanov, who went to the Berlin airport on Sunday to show support, said he thought Navalny was “very brave” to go back.
“If he wants to continue his political activity he has no other choice,” he said. “Here in Germany, he’ll just be forgotten.”
In announcing his planned homecoming, Navalny said on Instagram that he “never considered the choice whether to go back or not.”
“I never left,” he added. “I ended up in Germany, arriving there in an intensive care box, for one reason: they tried to kill me.”
Morris reported from Berlin.