A Moscow court on Wednesday night outlawed the organisations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny by labeling them extremist, the latest move in a campaign by authorities to silence dissent and bar Kremlin critics from running for parliament in September.
The Moscow City Court’s ruling, effective immediately, prevents people associated with Navalny’s Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his sprawling network of regional offices across Russia from seeking public office. Many of Navalny’s allies had hoped to run for parliamentary seats in the September 19 election.
The extremism label also carries lengthy prison terms for activists who have worked with the organisations, anyone who donated to them, and even those who simply shared the groups’ materials.
Navalny, the most ardent political foe of President Vladimir Putin, quickly responded by posting a defiant message on Instagram, vowing to continue working to oppose Russian authorities.
“We will not retreat from our goals and ideas. This is our country and we have no other,” he said in the message written in Russian that was posted from his penal colony outside Moscow.
“We’ll digest this, sort things out, change, and evolve. We’ll adapt. We won’t step back from our aims and ideas.”
Navalny posted the message in Russian on his instagram account
Navalny was arrested in January upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin – an accusation that Russian officials reject. In February, Navalny was given a 2.5-year prison term for violating the terms of a suspended sentence from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that he dismissed as politically motivated.
“It is another Kafka-esque attack on those standing up against corruption and for open societies, and is a deliberate attempt to effectively outlaw genuine political opposition in Russia,” UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price called the action “particularly disturbing” and said it was part of a pattern of restricting fundamental rights.
“Mr. Navalny himself remains in poor health, imprisoned on politically fabricated grounds. We call again for his immediate and unconditional release,” Price said.
The case is just one part of a multipronged government strategy to steamroll the opposition ahead of elections that has included the banning of other organisations and arrests of activists.
Lawyer Yevgeny Smirnov said during the hearing that stretched into the evening hours that the prosecutors’ motion was intended to bar Navalny’s associates from running for public office.
“This case has been linked to the law that bans all those who are connected with the Foundation for Fighting Corruption from getting elected,” Smirnov said.
The court session was held behind closed doors on the grounds that classified materials would be discussed.
The judge rejected a defence appeal to allow Navalny to take part via a video link from prison and dismissed other motions by the defence.
Navalny’s offices in dozens of Russian regions already shut down in April after the prosecutors issued an injunction to suspend their activities pending the court’s ruling, but the opposition leader’s associates have vowed to continue their work in different formats.
Videos on corruption
His foundation, started 10 years ago, has relentlessly targeted senior government officials with colourful and widely watched videos that detail corruption allegations against them. One of its latest productions, which has received 117 million views on YouTube, claimed that a lavish palace on the shores of the Black Sea was built for Putin through an elaborate corruption scheme. The Kremlin has denied any links to Putin.
Navalny also has relied on his offices across Russia to organise anti-Kremlin protests and implement his Smart Voting strategy – a project to support the candidates most likely to defeat those from the Kremlin’s dominant United Russia party in various elections.
During the hearing, prosecutors accused Navalny’s organisations of staging protests to overthrow the government.
As the Moscow court was considering the case, Russian lawmakers fast-tracked a new law that banned members of organisations declared extremist from running for public office. The law was signed by Putin last week – and combined with the court ruling will dash the hopes of several of Navalny’s associates who have declared their intention to run for parliament.
Ivan Zhdanov, a top Navalny associate who headed his foundation, vowed that the team will continue publishing exposes of corrupt officials and apply the Smart Voting strategy.
“Navalny’s team will not stop its activities, they shouldn’t hope for that,” Zhdanov, who lives abroad, told the independent Dozhd TV.
The September vote is widely seen as an important part of Putin’s efforts to cement his rule ahead of the 2024 presidential election. The 68-year-old leader, who has been in power for more than two decades, pushed through constitutional changes last year that would potentially allow him to hold onto power until 2036.
Ahead of the vote, the government has targeted other opposition figures as well. Last week, authorities arrested Andrei Pivovarov, the head of another anti-Kremlin group that they have labeled “undesirable” – a designation used by the Kremlin to outlaw more than 30 groups.
Cracking down on dissent
Days before his arrest, Pivovarov announced the dissolution of his Open Russia movement to protect members from prosecution, but that didn’t stop authorities from pulling him off a Warsaw-bound plane at St. Petersburg’s airport last week. A court in southern Russia’s Krasnodar region ordered him to be held for two months pending an investigation.
Membership in “undesirable” organisations is a criminal offence under a 2015 law, and another bill now making its way through the Russian parliament increases the punishment for it, introducing prison terms of up to six years for their members.
Open Russia was financed by Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who moved to London after spending 10 years in prison in Russia on charges widely seen as political revenge for challenging Putin’s rule. Khodorkovsky has described the ongoing crackdown on dissent as a reflection of authorities’ concern about the waning popularity of the main Kremlin-directed party, United Russia.
Another opposition activist, Dmitry Gudkov, a former Russian lawmaker who has aspired to run again for the parliament, was held for two days last week on financial charges that he and his supporters allege were trumped up. He went abroad after being released, saying that he had received a warning that he would be jailed if he didn’t leave the country.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP, REUTERS)