Supporters of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny say they face unprecedented pressure to end their support for President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent, as a Moscow court is set to designate their organization as an “extremist” movement just like the jihadist group al-Qaeda.
A closed-door hearing on Monday is expected to confirm prosecutors’ request to declare Navalny’s organization “extremist” – a move that would cut her funding and could result in 10-year prison sentences for members.
The assault on dozens of Navalny offices across Russia “will obviously make their activity impossible,” Leonid Volkov, chief of staff to the opposition leader, told the Financial Times.
The designation “extremist” seems designed to shut down offices in one fell swoop, he said.
“It basically forbids them to do anything,” said Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora legal aid foundation, which represents several people facing prosecution after the nationwide mass protests in January. in favor of Navalny.
“It is a ban on all public activity, to publicly mention [the group] – it’s basically a step before saying that mentioning Navalny’s name is extremist.
Before the expected decision, activists working for the leader of the opposition say they are under siege. Some have closed their local offices, while others have started eliminating their presence from Russian social media sites owned by Kremlin-friendly companies.
Police have stepped up pressure since protests in January, which called for Navalny’s release from prison, where he is serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence in a case widely seen as an attempt to neutralize his influence. Several have spent short periods in prison, while others say they have faced increasingly severe intimidation tactics.
In Rostov, a town near the border with Ukraine, local office coordinator Ksenia Seredkina said strangers took her in the middle of the night and tried to force her to suck on a rubber baton – scratching a letter N for Navalny on his arm. each time, she refused.
In Murmansk, someone slipped a target from a shooting range into Violetta Grudina’s mailbox and left flyers with her neighbors warning that she was “perverting children,” she said.
“I am under fire. How else are you supposed to interpret a target? Said Grudina, who heads Navalny’s office in the Barents Sea town 2,000 km north of Moscow.
Since taking over as head of the anti-Putin opposition in 2011, Navalny has shown a remarkable willingness to take official retaliation. After recovering in Germany from a intoxication by a nerve agent he claims to have received the order from Putin, he returned to Russia in January knowing that he would be arrested as soon as he arrived.
Previously, he had spent 13 stints in prison for protesting the Kremlin, had been repeatedly physically assaulted and had seen his brother Oleg jailed for three and a half years for fraud, a move Navalny called “hostage-taking.” “.
Putin, who denies any involvement in the poisoning of Navalny, said the activist was a Western agent determined to destroy Russia. Last week, in a clear reference to US and European calls for Navalny’s release, the president pledged a “Asymmetrical” and “robust” answer if they imposed measures crossing the “red lines” of Moscow.
The movement against Navalny’s foundation and regional network suggests the Kremlin wants to silence the opposition leader for good. A few of its main allies have recently fled Moscow for Europe, while police recently arrested several staff from its regional offices and a number of opposition activists in Moscow. Other arrests took place over the weekend.
The situation is particularly difficult for Navalny supporters in the regions, where there is little or no independent media and few civil society groups lobbying local authorities.
In Murmansk, a January rally that drew 2,000 people was “a total record for the past 20 years,” Grudnina said. When she told friends privately that she wanted to run for city council, Navalny’s office in Murmansk was ransacked by unknown assailants who painted swastikas on the walls and sealed the doors with paint. construction foam. Shortly after, her assistant was detained for drug trafficking.
Volkov said the Kremlin wanted to stop Navalny’s “smart vote” strategy for the September parliamentary elections, in which his regional offices approve candidates from official opposition parties with the best chance of defeating Putin’s United Russia.
“[The Kremlin] I don’t know what to do with their low approval ratings, and they are right in thinking that our regional offices can catalyze the vote against them, ”Volkov said. “They understand that our anti-corruption investigations will not go away even if they designate [Navalny’s organisation] extremist, terrorist and satanist. “
Recently, the police have shown a growing willingness to extend their reach to grassroots Navalny supporters – especially among young people.
Ahead of last week’s protest, several said on social media that police pressured their parents to sign documents saying they risked criminal prosecution if their children attended the rally. Other supporters said they received threats after an email database leaked from Navalny’s website.
In Murmansk, however, Grudina is determined to find a way to continue her activism.
“Would even a Putin supporter go to a protest for him if they knew they would be beaten with batons and thrown in jail or fined a mile? No, that’s the difference between us – we sincerely defend our points of view, ”she said. “We are the last bastion of freedom, honesty and justice.”