Mon, 08 Mar 2021

Poisoned Kremlin Critic Says He's Returning to Russia

Voice of America
14 Jan 2021, 00:35 GMT+10

MOSCOW - Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny announced Wednesday he would return to Moscow January 17 - ending a fourth-month convalescence in Germany where he has been recovering from a poisoning attack he suffered in Siberia last August.

The opposition figure's decision to return home comes with built-in risks to his continued freedom and safety.

Navalny insists the August attack was carried out by Russia's Federal Security Services on the orders of President Vladimir Putin - a charge the Kremlin has vehemently and repeatedly denied.

The decision to return also follows a court request by Russia's prison authorities earlier this week to jail Navalny for violating the terms of a parole agreement dating back to a 2014 suspended sentence.

FILE - An activist holds a portrait of opposition politician Alexei Navalny during a picket in his support in St Petersburg, Russia, Dec. 22, 2020. FILE - An activist holds a portrait of opposition politician Alexei Navalny during a picket in his support in St Petersburg, Russia, Dec. 22, 2020.

If approved, he could face arrest and an immediate 3.5 year prison term upon his return.

In addition, Russia's powerful Investigative Committee said this week it had opened two additional criminal cases against Navalny.

In announcing his plans, Navalny insisted threats to jail him were simply an attempt to force him into exile.

"It was never a question of 'to return or not,'' wrote Navalny in a social post in which he argued he'd been airlifted to Germany for one reason alone.

"They tried to kill me."

Kremlin Foe

Navalny's announced return was only the most recent twist in a winding political drama involving the opposition figure.

Navalny has long been a problematic figure for the Kremlin - detailing corruption and excess at the highest levels of the government on his popular YouTube channel.

The channel's mix of investigative journalism and caustic humor has resonated with younger Russians in particular.

Navalny has also made no secret of his political ambitions.

He tried to run a campaign for president in 2018 that ultimately was undone by a lingering criminal conviction for which he received a suspended sentence.

That court ruling - dating to 2014 - surfaced as an issue again late last month when Russia's prison service ordered Navalny to attend a parole hearing or risk jail for failing to appear.

Prison authorities justified the move by citing an article in the British medical journal Lancet that claimed Navalny had effectively recovered from a strain of the military nerve agent Novichok back in October - giving him more than enough time to meet with his parole officer in Moscow.

"In this way, the convict serving a suspended sentence has not met the court ordered requirements put upon him" read the announcement from officials.

Navalny supporters and pro-democracy advocates argued the move was an attempt to push Navalny into permanent exile.

"A Russian politician remains a Russian politician only if he's in Russia," wrote Lev Schlossberg, liberal politician from Yabloko party in a post to social media.

"The emigration towards which Navalny is being primitively forced is a path from Russian politics into an entirely different life, one that in no way influences the situation in Russia. In that sense, for Navalny there was no alternative but to return," he said.

A Mysterious Illness

Navalny fell violently ill while traveling home to Moscow from Siberia during a campaign trip with surrogates last August.

An emergency landing and initial treatment by Russian doctors in the city of Omsk offered few clues as to what had happened.

The Omsk doctors insisted they could find no traces of poison.

Upon his subsequent evacuation to a clinic in Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said toxicologists had "unequivocal proof" that Navalny had been poisoned with Novichok - a Soviet-era military grade toxin.

Swedish and French laboratories have since confirmed those findings -- as has the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Russia vigorously denies the charges but also has refused to launch an official investigation - arguing it has yet to see proof of a crime and suggesting Navalny suffered from a metabolic disease or low blood sugar.

Additionally, Russia has criticized Germany for failing to share evidence of its Novichok findings.

In December, a consortium of media outlets published an investigation that showed FSB agents had Navalny under surveillance in the months, days, and hours leading up to the attack.

Meanwhile, Navalny presented his own evidence: he released video of a prank call Navalny placed to a suspected member of the assassin team in which the FSB officer unwittingly confirmed key details of the operation.

Russia's Federal Security Services have dismissed the call as a fake.

Meanwhile, President Putin has acknowledged his government's surveillance of Navalny, albeit with a twist: the Russian leader alleged Navalny was working directly with American intelligence, leaving the FSB no choice.

"The intelligence agencies of course need to keep an eye on him," said Putin. "But that does not mean that he needs to be poisoned-who needs him? If they had really wanted to, they would have probably finished the job."

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