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To jail or not to jail: Kremlin in bind over Navalny return

Anna SMOLCHENKO

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s defiant pledge to return to Moscow from Germany after surviving a poisoning attack puts the Kremlin in a major bind.

President Vladimir Putin, observers say, is caught between a rock and a hard place: allow his most outspoken critic to freely return to Russia and risk looking weak, or hand Navalny a lengthy prison term and potentially turn him into a global cause celebre.

“There is not a good decision here but some sort of decision will have to be made,” political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya told AFP.

The 44-year-old’s announcement that he was returning to Moscow on Sunday aboard Pobeda — Aeroflot’s low-cost subsidiary whose name means “Victory” in Russian — drew gasps from admirers and critics alike.

Stanovaya said Navalny could still avoid long-term incarceration if authorities find a way to limit his political activities, perhaps by declaring him a “foreign agent” under legislation restricting individuals or organisations who receive funds from abroad.

But the Kremlin may have a low appetite for risk, with Russia set to hold parliamentary elections in September and the coronavirus pandemic exacerbating economic woes.

“I have a feeling the Kremlin has grown tired of these games,” said the head of the R.Politik analysis firm. “The confrontation with Navalny has been going on for too long.”

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