MOSCOW, (AFP):- Gathered at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport on Sunday to welcome home Russia’s top opposition figure Alexei Navalny, several hundred supporters waited in an atmosphere that was anxious, sometimes tense and often absurd.
And in the end Navalny never even showed up.
The chief Kremlin critic’s plane had been due to land at Vnukovo from Berlin but was eventually diverted to Moscow’s main international airport Sheremetyevo, where he was quickly detained by police.
In the days and hours leading up to his arrival, all eyes had been on Vnukovo southwest of Moscow, where officials had warned on social media that no public events would be allowed because of Covid-19 restrictions.
Many showed up anyway.
Tanya Shchukina, a 22-year-old artist, flew from Saint Petersburg to welcome Navalny home after he spent months in Germany recovering from a poisoning he blames on the Kremlin.
“It is important for me, as a Russian citizen, to support this man, his courage,” Shchukina told AFP at the airport.
“After this assassination attempt… I had to come to support him, to show him that he is not alone, that everything will be okay.”
She would not have been able to get very close, even if Navalny had arrived. Dozens of police deployed at the airport, and barricades were set up to block the arrivals hall.
Shchukina instead found herself confronted by a man 10 years her senior demanding “Is there any proof?” that Navalny was poisoned, as his friends egged him on and the atmosphere grew tense.
The man was among dozens of people claiming to be fans of a Russian pop star, Olga Buzova, who on Sunday morning suddenly announced that she was landing at the airport.
Less than an hour before Navalny’s plane was due to land, police ordered his supporters to disperse as several dozen Buzova fans — mostly young men dressed in black — began unfolding colourful signs declaring their love for the singer. Some held up enormous bouquets of flowers.
Navalny’s supporters insisted the “fans” were being paid to cause a scene, as actual travellers wandered the airport in utter confusion.
Meanwhile, several close allies of Navalny, including his top aide Lyubov Sobol, were being arrested at a nearby cafe where they had been waiting for him too. They were released later on Sunday night.
With the arrival time of Navalny’s flight fast approaching, rumours began to spread that the plane had been diverted.
And then, finally, the wait was over. A notice was posted on the arrivals board: Flight DP936 from Berlin was listed as “to Sheremetyevo”.
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