Russia on Wednesday said that Opposition leader Alexei Navalny is welcome to return to the country. The statement came hours after Navalny was discharged from a German hospital that treated him for poisoning. He has vowed to continue in politics and says he will return to Russia after fully recovering from being poisoned with the Novichok nerve agent in Siberia in August.
“As regards his returning to Moscow, like any other Russian citizen, he is free to do so at any moment,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, according to Russian news agencies.
Navalny, a charismatic anti-corruption campaigner, has been Russia’s leading opposition politician for around a decade. He is determined to challenge Vladimir Putin’s grip on power despite frequent prison stays and even harm to his health.
The Yale-educated 44-year-old lawyer has been banned from state television and was barred from challenging Putin in the 2018 presidential election.
Since the poisoning in August, the Putin critic has rallied support on social media. In his posts, he has even made fun of the Kremlin for suggesting that he poisoned himself.
Navalny, who has over two million followers on Twitter, has built a young fan base by exposing corruption among the elites.
He has grabbed attention with his uncompromising rhetoric and coined phrases such as the “party of crooks and thieves” to slam the ruling United Russia party.
In 2011, the anti-corruption blogger led mass protests when tens of thousands took to the streets of Moscow to protest vote-rigging in parliamentary elections.
He ran for Moscow mayor in 2013, and came second against Putin ally Sergei Sobyanin.
Series of legal battles
In 2017, he accused then-prime minister Dmitry Medvedev of massive corruption in a YouTube documentary. That kick-started a fresh wave of protests across the country that was met with police violence and mass arrests.
This was followed by several street attacks which left him nearly blind in one eye. He was even battered with a series of legal cases, which his supporters claim was a punishment for his activism.
In 2013, he was found guilty in an embezzlement case involving a timber deal and given a five-year suspended sentence that disqualified him from running in elections.
In 2014, he was given another suspended sentence, and his brother Oleg, a co-defendant, was jailed for three-and-a-half years in a decision activists likened to a “hostage-taking”.
Navalny has said he learnt about political campaigning from watching the US television series “House of Cards” and once listed Hollywood actor-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger among his personal heroes.
But with the Kremlin tightly controlling the media, he still remains a fringe figure for many Russians, who are exposed to the official portrayal of him as a Western stooge and convicted criminal.
Putin has refused to pronounce Navalny’s name in public, instead referring to him as “the person you mentioned”, among other euphemisms, when asked directly about the opposition leader.
While barred from mainstream politics, Navalny has sought to expose the lavish wealth of Russia’s elites, broadcasting the findings of his investigations to millions of Russians on social media and YouTube.
Among Navalny’s most eye-catching exposes have been details on the palatial homes of Putin’s allies in Russia and abroad — including one kitted out with a vast climate-controlled storage room for fur coats.
But despite tapping into discontent among a largely young urban middle class he is far from a unifying opposition figure, and some have criticised his anti-immigrant nationalist stance.
He scored his biggest recent success in local elections last year, when pro-Putin parties suffered unprecedented losses because of a “Smart Voting” plan Navalny put forward after his allies were barred from standing in numerous races.
The tactic calls for voters to support the one opposition candidate most likely to defeat the ruling party and saw Kremlin-linked candidates drop seats in the Moscow assembly.
His allies claimed symbolic victories in local elections in Siberia this month, citing the strategic voting tactic.
Since last year’s elections, however, Navalny’s offices have been raided repeatedly, while his Anti-Corruption Foundation was declared a “foreign agent” and ordered to pay several large fines.