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'I Woke Up An Extremist': Navalny Team Vows To Challenge Putin, Despite Watershed Ruling


Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny stands in a cage in court in Moscow in February.
Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny stands in a cage in court in Moscow in February.

MOSCOW -- Members of the political network built by Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny in Russia have pledged to continue their efforts to campaign for change and expose corruption in the upper echelons of power after a Moscow court declared their movement "extremist."

The Moscow City Court handed down its ruling late on June 9, preventing people associated with Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) and his collection of regional political offices from seeking public office.

The ruling marks a watershed moment for Russia's opposition. Protests for Navalny's release from jail in January precipitated a concerted state crackdown against his supporters. Law enforcement raided the homes of protesters, opposition-minded journalists, and even defense lawyers involved in the multiple criminal and civic cases against Navalny and his employees.

"I woke up an extremist," Georgi Alburov, a Navalny aide who has spearheaded investigations into corruption in Russia, wrote on Twitter early on June 10. "And sat down to work."

The message of defiance comes after a ruling that was widely expected and against the backdrop of an intensifying campaign by authorities to dismantle opposition networks ahead of elections to the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, in September.

The court's decision makes it illegal to hold membership or participate in the activities of the groups tied to Navalny, who is serving a 2 1/2-year sentence in a prison outside Moscow on fraud charges he says are trumped up. It also means his supporters face fines and jail time for displaying symbols associated with the groups.

Prosecutors in Moscow claimed that "under the guise of liberal slogans," Navalny-linked organizations were "engaged in creating conditions for destabilizing the social and sociopolitical situation." Tens of thousands of Russians rallied in Navalny's support during waves of protest in January and April.

In a Facebook post published to his account after the ruling, Navalny called the court's decision and the closed trial that preceded it a "laughingstock," and insisted he and his supporters won't back down.

"When corruption is the basis of state power, fighters against corruption are extremists," he said.

"We'll figure everything out. We'll change, we'll evolve, we'll adapt. But we won't retreat from our goals and beliefs. This is the only country we have," he added.

But opponents of the anti-corruption crusader, who has spent more than a decade digging up evidence of graft and urging demonstrations against President Vladimir Putin, hailed what they called a long-overdue decision.

"That's it," tweeted Ilya Remeslo, a pro-Kremlin blogger who has consistently criticized Navalny online and claimed substantial credit for encouraging the legal crackdown against his network, which intensified after his January return from Germany after treatment for a near-fatal poison attack he blames on the Kremlin. "[We] swatted [them] like a fly."

The Russian opposition has for years operated in a climate of constant surveillance, physical assaults, and exclusion from formal politics, despite being broadly tolerated as a thorn in the Kremlin's side.

But in the more than 21 years that Putin has served as a president or prime minister, the space for dissent has gradually narrowed, culminating in the latest ruling that critics say eviscerates even the modicum of political freedom that activists had previously enjoyed.

Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Moscow office director, said that the designation of organizations founded by Navalny as "extremist" places tens of thousands of his supporters "at risk of prosecution."

"This is one of the Kremlin’s most cynical and brazen attempts so far to crack down on the rights to freedom of expression and association," she added.

"The opposition will become less organized," Abbas Gallyamov, a Moscow-based political analyst, told RFE/RL. "But it won't disappear, because the fundamental reasons that have facilitated its rise -- authoritarianism, falling quality of life, tiredness of the same faces in politics -- are not going anywhere."

The ruling also coincides with a flurry of laws that have outlawed most forms of political activism and provided tools for authorities to punish freedom of speech ahead of the September vote, with opinion polls showing support for the ruling United Russia party at a historic low.

Legislation signed by Putin this month banned people tied to "extremist" organizations from running for elected posts, and the ruling against Navalny's group was widely seen as the inevitable final step in a legal process that would allow authorities to formally exclude any political force deemed to pose a challenge.

"The law has come into force, the president has signed it, and now they needed a court ruling to ban the maximum number of people from contesting elections," Ivan Zhdanov, the director of Navalny's FBK, said in an interview with the independent TV channel Dozhd.

Zviagina denounced "an unparalleled campaign of politically-motivated repression."

"Vladimir Putin's regime is compensating for its waning public support by creating an atmosphere of fear and despair, throwing its political rivals behind bars, forcing them out of the country and banning one after another those organizations held in disfavor by the regime,” she said.

The designation is also seen as a message to U.S. President Joe Biden ahead of his meeting with Putin in Geneva on June 16. Biden's administration has condemned the court ruling, as have officials and leaders in Britain and the EU.

"It is another Kafkaesque attack on those standing up against corruption and for open societies, and is a deliberate attempt to effectively outlaw genuine political opposition in Russia," British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement.

Biden has pledged to challenge Putin on his human rights record and violations of international norms, even as Putin has dismissed any such rebuke from the West as interference in Russia's domestic affairs.

"You can have different opinions about our political system," Putin told reporters at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum last week. "But give us, please, the right to decide ourselves how to organize this part of our life."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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