Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition activist, said he plans to return to his country this weekend, after recovering from an assassination attempt which he and his supporters say had been ordered by the Kremlin.
The return of Mr Navalny, who was airlifted to Germany in a coma in August after being poisoned with the Soviet-developed nerve agent novichok, comes despite the threats Russian authorities to put him in jail immediately and presents a political dilemma for the Kremlin on how to respond.
The attempted assassination of President Vladimir Putin most frank criticism the use of a banned chemical weapon has sparked international condemnation, prompted the EU to impose sanctions on some Russian officials, and drove Moscow-Berlin relations to a new low.
“On Sunday January 17, I will be going home,” Mr. Navalny said in an Instagram post on Wednesday. “I survived. And now Putin, who ordered my murder, is screaming all around his bunker and telling his servants to do everything so that I don’t come back.
The Kremlin has denied any role in poisoning, and made various claims that Mr. Navalny could have been poisoned after leaving Russia or by the CIA.
Calling on his supporters to meet with him upon his arrival in Moscow, Mr Navalny said many legal steps against him in recent weeks were efforts by the Kremlin to dissuade him from returning.
Any decision to detain the activist could spark popular protests, while Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of R.Politik, a Russian political think tank, said the Kremlin’s decision to “raise hopes for Mr. Navalny’s arrest Meant that if no action was taken “It will be interpreted by conservatives and security officials as a manifestation of weakness.”
“The situation with Navalny is very similar to two trains rushing towards each other and inevitably doomed to collide,” she added in a Telegram post. “There will be many victims.”
While Moscow has said Navalny is free to return at any time, his announcement comes two days after the Russian prison service requested his incarceration, alleging a violation of a suspended sentence for a 2014 conviction that the court European Human Rights Commission had ruled was politically motivated.
Separately, Russia announced new fraud charges against him last month that could lead to a 10-year prison sentence, in connection with charges he embezzled 365 million rupees ($ 4.9 million) of its Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Mr Navalny alleged the legal threats are aimed at dissuading him from returning, ahead of the crucial parliamentary elections in September, where his opposition movement seeks to exploit the declining popularity of Mr Putin’s ruling party, whose support has dropped to an all time high.
The activist was poisoned during a campaign trip to Siberia before local elections last fall, and collapsed on a plane back to Moscow that was forced to make an emergency landing. Russian doctors who initially treated him said they found no trace of a nerve agent until he was flown to Berlin.
Last month, the 44-year-old posted a recorded phone call that he said used leaked phone data and travel records. expose a man he claims to be a member of the Federal Security Service (FSB) of Russia involved in his poisoning.
While Mr. Putin confirmed that the spies were ordered to follow Mr. Navalny, the FSB, the successor agency of the KGB, rejected the recording as fake.
In Wednesday’s Instagram post, Mr Navalny said he had almost fully recovered from the poisoning and “the time for me has come”.
“The question ‘to come back or not’ has never arisen in front of me,” he added. “Mainly because I never left. I found myself in Germany, arrived in an intensive care box, for a reason: they tried to kill me.