Moscow is stepping up a repressive campaign against the opposition movement led by Alexei Navalny, whose groups and allies are likely to be designated as extremists.
(CN) — Ahead of parliamentary elections in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime is intensifying a sweeping crackdown on jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s network of allies by labeling his anti-Kremlin movement an extremist group.
On Monday, state prosecutors in Moscow filed a huge trove of documentation they allege support their contention that Navalny’s political movement is a danger because it is seeking to overthrow the Russian government in a foreign-backed “color revolution” akin to what happened in Ukraine in 2014.
The Moscow court is expected to agree with state prosecutors and officially designate Navalny’s organizations “extremist,” a classification that makes them an official threat to the Russian state. As such, authorities could freeze the groups’ funding, arrest its members and make it illegal to support Navalny.
The list of extremists is mostly made up of Islamic groups, such as the terrorist network of al-Qaida and the Islamic State, and neo-Nazi anti-Russian movements. Incredibly, it also includes the followers of the Jehovah’s Witness religious faith. Jehovah’s Witnesses were put on the list in 2017 and, according to the group’s Russian website, 62 followers are in prison, 34 under house arrest and hundreds of others have been persecuted.
Meanwhile, Russian lawmakers are expected to introduce legislation on Tuesday to ban members of extremist groups from running for elections to the State Duma, Russia’s parliament. It’s possible the new laws could be passed by the end of June and used to prevent Navalny supporters from running in the September elections.
At the end of April, Russia’s state financial watchdog, Rosfinmonitoring, listed three groups linked to Navalny – his Anti-Corruption Foundation, the Citizens’ Rights Defense Foundation and Navalny’s regional headquarters – as extremist.
Authorities then closed his group’s offices across Russia. Since then, Navalny’s supporters have raced to dissolve the groups as a way to prevent members from being persecuted for belonging to them.
On Monday, the Moscow City Court was expected to possibly rule on the extremism case against Navalny’s network, but it postponed the hearing to June 9 after prosecutors presented six more volumes of evidence. The proceedings took place behind closed doors, allegedly because of sensitive information contained in the new evidence.
Navalny’s lawyers blasted the decision to prevent the public from attending the proceedings, charging that Russian authorities want to keep the world in the dark about their repression of the political opposition.
Russian prosecutors allege Navalny’s organizations have “engaged in creating conditions for destabilizing the social and sociopolitical situation under the guise of their liberal slogans.”
Navalny’s supporters warn that listing his organizations as extremist will allow his allies to be rounded up and thrown in prison. The groups’ financial backers also face prosecution. Under Russian law, membership in or funding of an extremist organization is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The crackdown on Navalny’s organizations is leaving some undaunted. One of those is Andrei Prokudin, an activist who ran the Alexei Navalny Center in Tver before it was shut down by authorities.
Speaking to France 24, a French news channel, Prokudin said he expects the courts to list Navalny’s organization as extremist.
“We have no doubts other courts will just rubber stamp the regime’s decisions,” he said.
He said police were harassing Navalny supporters and targeting his center even before it was closed down. For example, police confiscated leaflets at the center calling for Navalny’s release, he told France 24.
“We’ve gotten used to being in prison,” he said. He said activists in Tver will create a new group unaffiliated with Navalny and that he plans to run for parliament.
There are reports of Navalny supporters getting fired from their jobs or not getting hired because of their political activism. Anti-government media reported that many workers for the Moscow metro transit system were fired after they joined pro-Navalny protests.
At the end of April, the former coordinator for Navalny’s Arkhangelsk headquarters was sentenced to 2 ½ years for posting a video of the German heavy metal band Rammstein that contained explicit sex acts. Andrei Borovikov shared the video on social media in 2014. Amnesty International called the case against him a “mockery of justice.” Russian courts found he had illegally distributed pornography.
Navalny is now Russia’s most prominent opposition figure and a danger to Putin’s regime even as he languishes in a Russian penal colony.
In the past decade, the 44-year-old Navalny has built a political network while fiercely attacking Putin and his cronies as destroying Russia with their corruption. Politically, Navalny is difficult to define; he’s aligned himself with Russia’s pro-democratic liberal urban elites but he’s also expressed nationalist and anti-Muslim views in the past and courted far-right voters.
Putin does not mention Navalny by name and the president’s allies, including much of the dominant pro-Kremlin media, treat Navalny as an instrument of American powers seeking to undermine Russia through a popular uprising that will bring about regime change.
But the crackdown on Navalny shows that the Kremlin considers him a threat, especially in advance of the September elections for the State Duma.
Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation has inflicted damage on Putin’s regime by exposing dirty deals and corruption at the highest levels, including allegations that Putin has built for himself a $1.3 billion palace on the Black Sea, a “new Versailles” that comes with luxury $850 Italian-made toilet brushes.
Navalny’s fate has become a focus of international politics after he was allegedly poisoned by Russian state agents last August while in Siberia. He was permitted to get treatment in Germany and while he was outside Russia garnered support from European and American leaders. In January, Navalny defiantly returned to Russia, a daring move to challenge Putin just as U.S. President Joe Biden was set to take over at the White House. Biden is taking a much harder line on the Kremlin and tensions between the U.S. and Russia have escalated.
Upon his return to Moscow, Navalny was arrested at the airport on charges that he had violated his parole by skipping parole hearings while he was in Germany. He was serving a suspended sentence for an embezzlement conviction deemed bogus by many. He was then ordered to serve the remainder of the suspended sentence in prison, a decision that led to widespread protests across Russia.
It’s difficult to say how popular Navalny is with Russians. According to surveys by the Levada Center, an independent pollster, large swaths of the Russian public – though not among younger Russians – feel that Navalny was fairly imprisoned upon his return to Russia. The Levada Center’s polls also show that Putin enjoys high approval ratings with more than 60% of Russians saying they like him. Putin’s critics say the president’s high poll numbers are the result of pro-Kremlin propaganda and state handouts.
The crackdown on Navalny’s organizations is part of a wider campaign against critical voices. In recent weeks, Russia has designated several media outlets and journalists as “foreign agents,” a designation that requires their news reports to include a statement saying their report was produced by a foreign agent.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.