For experts, President Vladimir Putin will have to choose the lesser of two evils. Allowing the opponent to return freely to Russia is to risk appearing weak. Sentencing him to prison is making his case a famous cause on which all the world spotlight will be shone.
“There is no good decision but a decision will have to be taken anyway”, summarizes for . the political scientist Tatiana Stanovaïa.
The announcement by Alexeï Navalny of his return, after months of convalescence in Germany, has stirred both critics and supporters, who fear for his safety and freedom.
Whatever happens to the main Russian opponent, his return is a challenge to Vladimir Putin, whose popularity has plummeted in recent years. It is also a new deal ahead of the legislative elections scheduled for this year.
Three European laboratories have concluded that the 44-year-old opponent was poisoned, while on an election tour in Siberia, with an nerve agent of the Novichok type, developed in Soviet times.
A conclusion confirmed by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), despite Moscow’s denials.
Out of a coma in early September, Alexeï Navalny has since been the victim of an assassination attempt by Russian special services (FSB) on the orders of Vladimir Putin.
Stubbornly refusing to open an investigation into what happened to Mr. Navalny in Siberia this summer, the Russian authorities instead launched a new investigation in December, accusing him of having spent 356 million rubles for his personal use ( 3.9 million euros) in donations.
And Thursday, the prison services assured that they will be “obliged” to arrest the opponent on his return, for violating the conditions of a suspended prison sentence for embezzlement to which he was sentenced in 2014 and that he has always denounced as being politically motivated.
“They really didn’t want him to come back,” notes political analyst Anton Orekh with reference to the Russian authorities: “Now the guys are in panic.”
Alexeï Navalny, an anti-corruption activist who has organized many well-attended demonstrations and whose electoral tactics have provoked several embarrassing setbacks for the government in local elections, is regularly prosecuted and sentenced to short detentions.
However, he never served a long prison sentence. In 2013, he was sentenced to five years for embezzlement, but his sentence was commuted to a suspended sentence after large protests.
According to Ms. Stanovaïa, to avoid having to lock him up, the Russian authorities could find a way to limit his political activism by declaring him for example “foreign agent”, a term resulting from a law prohibiting individuals or organizations to receive donations from other countries.
The Kremlin could also choose a more expeditious method as the autumn parliamentary elections approach. “I have the feeling that the Kremlin is tired of this game. The confrontation with Navalny has gone on for too long,” she said.
Alexei Navalny is himself ineligible because of his legal disputes and, ignored by the mainstream media, his popularity is primarily concentrated in Moscow and a few other large cities. Many of its allies are also barred from standing for election.
Taken in September, a poll by the independent Levada center showed that only 20% of Russians approved of Mr Navalny’s activism compared with 50% disapproved of him, with the rest either not having heard of the opponent or not having an opinion. .
Mr. Navalny’s supporters hope that international attention since his poisoning will save him arrest and jail. They called on the Russians to come to Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport on Sunday to welcome them, an event posted on Facebook showing that nearly 2,000 people are planning to do so.
For political scientist Sergei Medvedev, Navalny’s return to Russia is “a powerful gesture, no matter what”. “It is a comeback of Russian politics which was hitherto in limbo, non-existent,” he added on Facebook.