Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP
MOSCOW – A Moscow court on Wednesday banned organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny as extremists, the latest step in a campaign to silence dissent and ban Kremlin critics to stand for parliamentary elections in September.
The Moscow City Court’s ruling, which takes effect immediately, prevents those associated with the Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation and its sprawling regional network from running for public office. Many of Navalny’s allies had hoped to run for parliamentary seats in the September 19 elections.
The move, part of a multi-pronged Kremlin strategy to crush the opposition, sends a harsh message a week before President Vladimir Putin holds a summit meeting with President Biden in Geneva.
The label of extremism also carries long prison sentences for activists who have worked with the organizations, anyone who donated to them, and even those who simply shared the groups’ materials.
Navalny, Putin’s most ardent political enemy, was arrested in January on his return from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from poisoning with a nerve agent he attributes to the Kremlin – a charge that Russian officials reject. In February, Navalny was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for violating the terms of a suspended sentence of a 2014 embezzlement conviction which he dismissed as politically motivated.
In a statement posted to his Instagram account after the verdict, Navalny denounced the hearing as a travesty of justice and vowed to continue to challenge the Kremlin.
“When corruption is the foundation of government, anti-corruption fighters are presented as extremists,” the statement said. “We will not give up on our goals and our ideas. This is our country and we have no other.”
The US State Department condemned the court’s decision, saying “Russia has effectively criminalized one of the few independent political movements in the country.”
“The Russian people, like everyone else, have the right to express themselves freely, to form peaceful associations for common ends, to exercise their religious freedom and to make their voice heard in free and fair elections,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
The hearing, which lasted more than 12 hours, was held behind closed doors on the grounds that classified documents would be discussed. The judge dismissed a defense appeal to allow Navalny to participate via video link from prison and dismissed the remaining defense requests.
Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP
Lawyer Yevgeny Smirnov said at the hearing that prosecutors’ request was to bar Navalny’s associates from running for public office. “This case is linked to the law which prohibits anyone connected with the Anti-Corruption Foundation from getting elected,” Smirnov said.
Lawyers said they would appeal the decision.
Navalny’s offices in dozens of Russian regions already closed in April after prosecutors issued an order to suspend their activities pending the court ruling, but the opposition leader’s associates have vowed to continue their work in different formats.
Its foundation, established 10 years ago, relentlessly targets senior government officials with colorful and widely watched videos that detail allegations of corruption against them. One of his latest productions, which received 117 million views on YouTube, claimed that a lavish palace on the shores of the Black Sea was built for Putin thanks to an elaborate corruption scheme. The Kremlin has denied any connection to Putin.
Navalny has also relied on its offices across Russia to stage anti-Kremlin protests and implement its smart voting strategy – a project to support candidates most likely to defeat those in the dominant United Russia party. of the Kremlin in various elections.
During the hearing, prosecutors accused Navalny’s organizations of staging protests to overthrow the government.
As the Moscow court prepared to consider the case, Russian lawmakers accelerated a measure barring members of organizations declared to be 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 Navalny associates who have declared their intention to run for parliamentary elections.
Ivan Zhdanov, one of Navalny’s main associates who ran his foundation, vowed that the team would continue to publish denunciations of corrupt officials and apply the smart voting strategy.
“Navalny’s team will not stop their activities, they should not hope for this,” Zhdanov, who lives abroad, told Dozhd independent television.
The September vote is widely seen as an important part of Putin’s efforts to consolidate 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 last year constitutional changes that would potentially allow him to retain power until 2036.
Before the vote, the government also targeted other opposition figures. Authorities last week arrested Andrei Pivovarov, the leader of another anti-Kremlin group they called “undesirable” – a designation used by the Kremlin to ban more than 30 groups.
Days before his arrest, Pivovarov announced the disbandment of his Open Russia movement to protect members from prosecution, but that did not prevent authorities from removing him from a plane bound for Warsaw at St. Petersburg last week. A court in the Krasnodar region in southern Russia ordered his detention for two months pending an investigation.
Membership in “undesirable” organizations is a criminal offense under a 2015 law, and another bill currently passed by the Russian parliament increases penalties, introducing prison terms of up to six years for their members.
Open Russia was funded 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 defying the Putin regime. Khodorkovsky described the ongoing crackdown on dissent as a reflection of authorities’ concern over the declining popularity of the main Kremlin-led United Russia party.
Another opposition activist, Dmitry Gudkov, a former Russian lawmaker who aspired to run for re-election, was detained for two days last week on financial charges which he and his supporters say were fabricated . He traveled abroad after being released, claiming he had received a warning that he would be jailed if he did not leave the country.