Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP
MOSCOW – A Moscow court on Wednesday night banned organizations founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny by labeling them extremists, the latest move in a campaign to silence dissent and ban Kremlin critics from running for the Parliament in September.
The ruling of the Moscow City Court, effective immediately, prevents individuals associated with the Navalny Foundation for the Fight against Corruption and its extensive regional network from seeking public office. Many of Navalny’s allies hoped to run for parliamentary seats in the September 19 elections.
The ruling, part of a multi-front Kremlin strategy to crush the opposition, sends a stark message a week before President Vladimir Putin holds a summit meeting with President Biden in Geneva.
The extremism label also carries long prison terms 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 upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning that blames the Kremlin, a charge that Russian officials reject. In February, Navalny was sentenced to a two-and-a-half-year prison term for violating the terms of a suspended sentence of a 2014 embezzlement conviction that he dismissed on political grounds.
In a statement posted on his Instagram account after the verdict, Navalny denounced the hearing as a parody of justice and vowed to continue challenging the Kremlin.
“When corruption is the basis of government, anti-corruption fighters are described as extremists,” the statement said. “We will not abandon our goals and ideas. It is our country and we have no other.”
The US State Department condemned the court’s ruling, saying “Russia has effectively criminalized one of the few remaining independent political movements in the country.”
“The Russian people, like all people, have the right to speak freely, form peaceful associations for common purposes, exercise religious freedom and have their voice heard in free and fair elections,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price, in a statement.
The court session, which lasted more than 12 hours, was held behind closed doors on the grounds that classified materials would be discussed. The judge rejected a defense appeal to allow Navalny to participate via video link from the prison and dismissed other defense motions.
Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP
Attorney Yevgeny Smirnov said during the hearing that the prosecutors’ motion was intended to prevent Navalny’s associates from running for public office. “This case has been related to the law that prohibits all those who are related to the Foundation for the Fight against Corruption from being elected,” Smirnov said.
The lawyers said they would appeal the ruling.
Navalny’s offices in dozens of Russian regions already closed in April after prosecutors issued a court order to suspend their activities pending the court ruling, but the opposition leader’s associates have promised to continue his work in different formats.
His foundation, which began 10 years ago, has relentlessly attacked senior government officials with colorful and widely viewed videos detailing the corruption allegations against him. One of his latest productions, which has received 117 million views on YouTube, claimed that a luxurious palace was built on the shores of the Black Sea for Putin through an elaborate corruption scheme. The Kremlin has denied any ties to Putin.
Navalny has also relied on its offices across Russia to organize anti-Kremlin protests and implement its Smart Voting strategy, a project to support the candidates most likely to defeat the Kremlin’s ruling United Russia party in multiple elections.
During the hearing, prosecutors accused Navalny’s organizations of organizing protests to overthrow the government.
As the Moscow court prepared to consider the case, Russian lawmakers accelerated a measure that prohibited members of declared extremist organizations from running for public office. The law was signed by Putin last week and, combined with the court’s ruling, will put an end to the hopes of several Navalny associates who have declared their intention to run for parliament.
Ivan Zhdanov, one of Navalny’s top associates who spearheaded its foundation, promised that the team will continue to publish allegations of corrupt officials and apply the Smart Voting strategy.
“The Navalny team will not stop their activities, they should not expect that,” Zhdanov, who lives abroad, told the independent channel Dozhd TV.
The September vote is seen as an important part of Putin’s efforts to cement his rule ahead of the 2024 presidential elections. The 68-year-old leader, who has been in power for more than two decades, pushed for constitutional changes last year. that would potentially allow him to stay in power until 2036.
Before the vote, the government has also targeted other opposition figures. 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.
Days before his arrest, Pivovarov announced the dissolution of his Open Russia movement to protect members from prosecution, but that did not stop authorities from getting him off a Warsaw-bound plane at St. Petersburg airport last week. A court in the Krasnodar region of southern Russia ordered him to be held for two months pending an investigation.
Membership in “undesirable” organizations is a crime under a 2015 law, and another bill now being approved by the Russian parliament increases the punishment, introducing prison terms of up to six years for its members.
Open Russia was funded by Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who moved to London after spending 10 years in prison in Russia on charges that are seen as political revenge for defying Putin’s government. Khodorkovsky has described the current crackdown on dissent as a reflection of the authorities’ concern over the dwindling popularity of the main Kremlin-led United Russia party.
Another opposition activist, Dmitry Gudkov, a former Russian MP who was aspiring to run for parliament again, was detained for two days last week on financial charges that he and his supporters allege were fabricated. He went abroad after being released, saying that he had received a warning that he would be imprisoned if he did not leave the country.