The Russian Bobeda plane, which took two and a half hours to complete, took off from Berlin-Brandenburg Airport and is scheduled to land in Vnukovo, Moscow, which is under heavy police guard on Sunday.
Navalny arrived in Germany five months ago in a coma after being poisoned with Novichok, a military-grade nerve gas that Russia had developed during the years of the Soviet Union. After an extraordinary recovery, Navalny appears ready to return to his role as the thorn in President Vladimir Putin’s side, and appears not deterred by his sweet throat with death.
He thanked all the other passengers on board as he and wife Yulia Navalnia boarded the plane in Berlin, according to a live feed from TV Rain.
“Thank you all, I hope we get there well,” Navalny said. “And I’m sure everything will be absolutely fine.”
Several Western officials and Navalny himself openly blamed the Russian state for the poisoning, which the Kremlin denied.
Navalny had told his supporters on social media on Wednesday, “Come see me” when he lands in Moscow. He said his decision to go home was spontaneous.
Russian authorities responded quickly. The country’s prison authorities said on Thursday they were obligated to “take all measures to arrest” Navalny before the court session he is scheduled to attend.
Moscow authorities also issued a warning to those planning to meet Navalny at the airport, saying that the city considers the gathering an unauthorized demonstration. In recent months, Russia has passed several laws to quell protests, and authorities have arrested peaceful protesters.
In an Instagram post on Saturday, Navalny wrote a post thanking Germany, adding that Germans are “kind, sympathetic and friendly people.”
“Doctors and nurses. Physical therapists and police officers. Lots of policemen. Neighbors who called for a drink, who allowed us to rent. Politicians and lawyers, shopkeepers, journalists, prosecutors who interrogated me at requests from Russia. Coaches, teachers and even, once, a counselor. I had a wide circle of friends here. I can only say thank you very much to everyone. “
Navalny, who has been detained by Russian authorities several times, was placed on the country’s federal most wanted list during his time in Germany at the request of FSIN, which in December accused him of violating probation terms in a years-old fraud case. He refuses for political reasons.
Now FSIN claims that Navalny violated the terms of his suspended sentence by failing to show up to scheduled inspections.
FSIN requested that the court replace his suspended sentence with a real prison sentence. A hearing is scheduled for January 29, and if the request is met, Navalny will likely be imprisoned for 3.5 years.
In 2014, Navalny was convicted of fraud after he and his brother Oleg were accused of embezzling 30 million rubles ($ 540,000) from a Russian subsidiary of French cosmetics company Yves Rocher. While Navalny was sentenced to a suspended prison sentence, his brother was imprisoned.
What happens after Navalny?
If Navalny is not found guilty later in January, he will still face an investigation into a new fraud case, in which he and his anti-corruption foundation have been accused of misusing donations from his supporters. This would give authorities a choice in how to silence him – from being placed under house arrest before trial to staying for weeks in a detention center.
But political observers speculate on a whole host of possible scenarios, from immediate arrest to an arduous charade of legal threats and short-term detentions.
Abbas Galiyamov, a former Kremlin political advisor and speechwriter, said on Facebook that Navalny would be arrested “definitely.”
“Why am I so sure? Because by starting these legal cases, the Kremlin has created expectations within society,” Jalamov wrote. “If you step back from this now, everyone will see that it is a weakness, and most important of all, [Putin] You are afraid to do anything that is considered weak. “
Andrey Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, said in an interview with TV Rhein that Navalny can still be free, but he can be portrayed as a “trick man” in bed with the United States, interfering in Russia’s political affairs.
“This is [the Kremlin could] Start playing political games with him: Leave him free, make his life more difficult than before, and make him the target of constant attacks, a permanent body that will impose the line of the American administration or the CIA. “
Putin, who refuses to acknowledge Navalny as a legitimate opponent, described the intense media coverage and investigations into the poisoning as a fabrication by Western intelligence, and said in December that if the Russian security services had wanted to kill Navalny, they would “have finished.”
“The situation with Navalny is as if two trains are driving toward each other at full speed, and they are bound to collide,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Center in Moscow. “There will be many victims.”
The attacks on Navalny’s allies have indeed continued. Photographer Pavel Zelensky was arrested with the Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation on Friday and will be held until the end of February.
According to the Russian human rights organization Agora, Zelensky was accused of extremism due to tweets in September in which he blamed the government for the self-immolation of journalist Irina Slavina. Before committing suicide with her life, Slavina blamed Russian law enforcement authorities for their decision to sacrifice themselves.
Navalny’s opponents are ready for his comeback
Navalny was targeted by several puppet agitators. At least two pro-government extremist groups have hinted that they are gathering people to join the rally at Vnukovo airport before Sunday.
SERB – a notorious nationalist group that Navalny blamed for assaulting him with a green disinfectant in 2017 in which he nearly lost an eye – told Open Media they are planning to visit the airport because they “missed Navalny”.
Members of the Guard Zachar Prilibins, a movement with roots among separatists in Donbass in eastern Ukraine, said in an online forum that they intend to present a written warning to Navalny.
“If he attempts to undermine the constitutional order on his part, Zakhar Prilibin’s guards will demand his expulsion from the Russian Federation or his expulsion of his own accord,” the statement said.
Navalny’s future could also hinge on the Russian public’s reaction to his return and possible arrest. Until now, the Kremlin’s message about the poisoning has resonated with the Russians.
An independent poll by Levada, an independent pollster, showed in December that nearly half of Russians believed Navalny’s poisoning was either “deliberate” or a “provocation” by Western intelligence agencies.
CNN’s Angela Diwan and Claudia Otto contributed to this report.