A Russian court is soon expected to outlaw opposition politician Alexei Navalny’s nationwide political organisation on the grounds it is “extremist”, in a landmark step forward for Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on political dissent.
The highly anticipated court decision will effectively liquidate Navalny’s non-violent opposition movement and bar his allies from running for office for years, as the Kremlin seeks to erase the jailed opposition leader from Russian political life.
Legal aides representing the Navalny movement said they believed the court was attempting to fast-track a hearing and deliver a verdict on Wednesday but would be slowed down by their “numerous appeals”.
A decision would either come late on Wednesday or have to be delayed, wrote Ivan Pavlov, a lawyer for the defence.
The court hearing has coincided with a fierce crackdown on other opposition politicians and even lawyers who have defended the growing tide of political prisoners in court. Pavlov has been charged with revealing pre-trial investigation secrets in a treason case against a former journalist and faces a short prison term and disbarment.
“Putin has rewritten the constitution for himself, every article in the constitution about civil rights has begun to read like a joke, and yet we’re the extremists,” said Georgy Alburov, an investigator for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), one of the organisations likely to be labelled as extremist on Wednesday.
The ruling will most likely render both Navalny’s regional headquarters and his anti-corruption foundation toxic, threatening his political activists and investigators with long jail terms if they continue their work, and could also target financial donors and even journalists that mention Navalny’s organisations in the media.
The trial marks a change of attitude in the Kremlin, which for years had harassed Navalny and his allies but resisted a widespread ban on street opposition. But since Navalny was targeted in a novichok poisoning last year, the Kremlin has grown more aggressive, overseeing Navalny’s jailing on embezzlement charges from 2014 and the arrest of thousands of protesters in cities across Russia who came out to demand his release.
“It’s gone beyond criticism of the government,” a prosecutor said in the closed court hearing according to a partial transcript published by Pavlov. “You are leading people out on the street in order to change the government by force.” The government has refused to admit journalists to the hearings because the prosecution’s case contains secret evidence.
Navalny has been sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison and faces further criminal prosecution, making it likely that his sentence could be prolonged if the Kremlin deems that the opposition leader remains a threat. He appeared by video at a court hearing on Tuesday after being returned to his prison colony following a 24-day hunger strike.
Putin this week also signed a new law that will prevent the founders, leaders and funders of extremist groups from running for political office for years, tainting much of Russia’s non-systemic democratic opposition in the run-up to parliamentary elections later this year.
The court hearing comes days before Putin meets the US president, Joe Biden, in Geneva and, if a verdict is delivered, is likely to feature high on the agenda of that meeting, which was expected to focus on security issues.
Navalny’s daughter on Tuesday lamented the “fast downfall of democracy” in Russia while accepting a “moral courage” award for her father from the Geneva-based group UN Watch.
Traditional designees to Russia’s list of extremist organisations are terrorist and hate groups, including Islamic State and various neo-Nazi groups. Others include non-violent religious groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have faced surveillance, raids and arrest for holding religious meetings.
Yet it is novel for a non-violent political organisation that has sought to consolidate Russia’s fractured opposition, hold mass protests, and expose government corruption through slick investigations that have angered many of Putin’s powerful friends and allies.
Navalny, who began his political career as a muckraking blogger on LiveJournal, has painstakingly built his political efforts into a guerrilla newsroom, an investigative unit, regional headquarters that helped coordinate protests, and even a campaign strategy hub that sought to channel votes toward the most promising opponents of the ruling party, United Russia.
Russia has sought to portray Navalny as a tool of western intelligence agencies. Moscow’s prosecutor announced in April that it would seek to liquidate Navalny’s organisation for “creating conditions for changing the foundations of the constitutional order, including through the scenario of a ‘coloured revolution’”. It had already suspended his organisations’ activities and added them to a financial terrorism watchlist that effectively froze their bank accounts.
Many of Navalny’s top aides, including Leonid Volkov and the FBK head, Ivan Zhdanov, have fled Russia for Europe. Regional activists have begun going to ground, with administrators of his more than three-dozen headquarters wiping social media pages of personal information before an expected crackdown in regions across the country.