Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny said Wednesday he plans to return home this weekend from Germany, where he has been recovering from a poisoning attack, despite a threat of jail.
The 44-year-old Kremlin critic said he plans to arrive in Moscow on Sunday.
“It was not my choice to come to Germany… I ended up here because they tried to kill me,” the anti-graft campaigner said in a video posted on his Instagram account.
Describing himself as “almost healthy”, he said in the video: “Come meet me”.
Allies said he would arrive on a Pobeda airlines flight at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport at 7:20 pm local time (1620 GMT) on Sunday.
Navalny has been in Germany since late August after he fell violently ill on a flight from Siberia to Moscow and was hospitalised in the city of Omsk. He was then flown to Berlin in an induced coma.
Western experts concluded that Navalny was poisoned using the Soviet-designed nerve agent Novichok, the same chemical said to be used in the attempted murder of former spy Sergei Skripal in the English town of Salisbury in 2018.
Navalny insists the attack was carried out by Russia’s main security agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), on the orders of President Vladimir Putin.
Threat of jail time
“They are doing everything to scare me and all Putin has left to do is hang up a poster over the Kremlin saying ‘Alexei, please, do not come home under any circumstances’,” Navalny said.
On Monday, authorities asked a Moscow court to turn a suspended sentence Navalny received in 2014 into a jail term.
Russia’s prison authorities say Navalny broke the terms of his probation by remaining abroad after being discharged from hospital in Berlin in September.
Russian investigators in December also launched a criminal probe into Navalny’s alleged use of more than $4 million of donations to his organisations for personal purposes.
The Kremlin denies Navalny’s claims he was poisoned by authorities.
But the European Union has barred a number of officials, including the head of the FSB, and frozen their bank accounts and Russia has sanctioned EU officials in a tit-for-tat move.
Putin said last month that if Russia’s special services had wanted to poison Navalny “they would have taken it to the end”.
Navalny rose to prominence a decade ago and has since become a central figure of Russian’s protest movement and the country’s main anti-corruption campaigner.
His team publishes investigations into the wealth of Russia’s political elite on a YouTube channel with more than four million subscribers, making him a target of lawsuits that he says are fabricated.
Both Navalny and his allies have spent time in prison and police frequently raid his offices across the country.
Navalny and his allies have accused the Kremlin of trying to block his return as the ruling United Russia party looks to maintain its majority in September elections to the lower house State Duma.
Political analyst Abbas Gallyamov said in a post on Facebook that Navalny’s return will be a “serious political event”, comparing it to Vladimir Lenin returning from exile in the wake of the 1917 revolution.
But Gallyamov added that his return could have been better timed with the autumn Duma elections.
“All I know is that if he is arrested now (and he will definitely be arrested) then by the summer the wave of outrage associated with this event will surely have faded away”.
Russian authorities have not launched a criminal probe into the poisoning, citing a lack of evidence.
Late last year, investigative website Bellingcat together with several publications published a joint report saying chemical weapons experts followed Navalny for years, including on the day of his poisoning.
Using phone logs and flight records, the report published the names and photos of the men, although they did not establish any direct contact between them and Navalny.
Several days later Navalny published a video in which he says he calls one of the FSB agents identified by Bellingcat and tricks him into a confession of the poisoning attack by pretending to be one of his superiors. The video has since been viewed more 22 million times on YouTube.