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Navalny’s network crumbling under Kremlin pressure

Prosecutors are seeking to have Navalny’s movement declared an extremist organization. A Moscow court this week ordered Navalny’s groups to halt all public activity pending a final ruling in the extremism case.

By: New York Times | Moscow |
April 30, 2021 10:19:47 am
Alexei Navalny, Kremlin pressure, Alexei Navalny-Kremlin, world news, Indian expressAlexei Navalny, the Russian opposition politician, meets with volunteers in Ivanovo, Russia, April 21, 2017 (James Hill/The New York Times/File)

Written by Anton Troianovski

Associates of Alexei Navalny said they were shutting down their nationwide network of regional offices on Thursday even as the imprisoned Russian opposition leader vowed, in an online court appearance, to keep fighting the “emperor with no clothes” in the Kremlin.

Disbanding Navalny’s 40 regional offices became inevitable in recent weeks, an aide to Navalny said, amid the Kremlin’s latest efforts to stifle political dissent. Prosecutors are seeking to have Navalny’s movement declared an extremist organization. A Moscow court this week ordered Navalny’s groups to halt all public activity pending a final ruling in the extremism case.

“Alas, we must be honest: It’s impossible to work under these conditions,” the aide to Navalny, Leonid Volkov, said in a YouTube video, warning that continuing to operate would expose supporters of the opposition leader to criminal prosecution. “We are officially disbanding the network of Navalny offices.”

The demise of Navalny’s network of regional offices — from Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea to Vladivostok on the Pacific — represents the end of an era in Russian politics, when the opposition leader had controlled the country’s most formidable nationwide political infrastructure dedicated to toppling President Vladimir Putin.

The move seems likely to push the resistance to Putin further underground, after several months in which the Kremlin’s yearslong effort to suppress dissent has entered a new, more aggressive phase.

The Russian president, now in his third decade in power, has already outlasted multiple challenges to his rule, including large street protests in Moscow in 2011 and 2012, when Navalny first emerged as a political star. For many years, the Kremlin has left a space for political dissent and refrained from dismantling Navalny’s movement entirely.

But all that has changed since Navalny’s return to Moscow in January after recovering from a poisoning last summer that Western officials said was an assassination attempt organized by the Russian government. Many of Navalny’s associates have been jailed or forced into exile, while the extremism case against his organization could turn the faintest expression of support for him into a crime.

The independent news media has also come under increased pressure, with one of the most popular Russian-language news websites, Meduza, fighting for its survival after being declared a “foreign agent” by the Russian government last week.

Still, Navalny appears determined to remain at the helm of the opposition to Putin, even from prison, where he is serving a 2 1/2-year term for violating parole for what rights groups say was a politically motivated conviction for embezzlement.

He returned to public view on Thursday for the first time since he began a hunger strike to demand better medical treatment. He ended the 24-day hunger strike last week. Speaking by video link to a Moscow courtroom, Navalny was appealing a February conviction for defamation of a World War II veteran that resulted in an $11,500 fine. The court denied the appeal. On the courtroom video screens, Navalny appeared gaunt, but as he talked over the judge’s attempts to interrupt his closing statement, his voice sounded nearly as forceful as it was in his dramatic courtroom appearances earlier this year.

Putin, he said, was trying to wrap himself in the glory of the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II in order to justify his effort to stay in power.

“Your emperor with no clothes has stolen the banner of victory and is trying to fashion it into a thong for himself,” Navalny said, addressing the judge, according to audio recordings published by Russian news outlets. “All your authorities are occupiers and traitors.”

During a break in the proceeding, Navalny spoke with his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, over the video link in the courtroom. He told her that wardens had taken him to a sauna on Wednesday to improve his appearance before the public saw him. He told her he was gradually increasing the number of spoons of porridge he was consuming as he came out of his hunger strike.

“I’m just a horrible skeleton,” he said, describing what he saw when he looked in the mirror.

At a different Moscow courthouse on Thursday, Navalny’s lawyers arrived for a closed-door session in the extremism case against his organization. The evidence in the case has been ruled a state secret, but the opposition leader’s team said they learned that investigators had launched yet another criminal investigation against Navalny, Volkov and another top aide, Ivan Zhdanov.

The crime being investigated, the Russian state-run Tass news agency confirmed, was “the creation of a nonprofit organization infringing on the privacy and rights of citizens.”

Volkov, a former software-company executive who ran Navalny’s nationwide network of regional offices, said that not all of them would close. Others, he predicted, would transform into independent political entities engaged in local politics.

“Most will continue their work as self-sufficient, independent, regional civic and political movements, with strong people at the helm,” Volkov said of the offices. “This means that everything we have done together up until now will not have been for naught.”

The Navalny group’s network of offices, started before Navalny’s failed attempt to challenge Putin in the 2018 presidential election, grew into the most expansive nationwide political infrastructure outside of the existing set of Kremlin-sanctioned opposition parties. The offices agitated for a boycott of the 2018 election, in which Navalny was barred from running, and worked on a coordinated effort to undermine pro-Kremlin candidates in local and regional elections that the Navalny team called “smart voting.”

Emulating Navalny’s splashy corruption investigations published on YouTube, the local offices highlighted what they described as theft and injustice carried out by local officials.

Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation continues to operate, though prosecutors are also seeking to have it outlawed as extremist. It is the foundation that produces Navalny’s biggest hits on social media, such as the investigation into Putin’s purported secret palace in January that has been viewed 116 million times on YouTube.

Some of Navalny’s associates are keeping the foundation running from outside Russia; on Wednesday, they published a video disclosing what they said were the salaries of Navalny’s loudest critics on RT, the Russian state-funded television network.

“Working offline in Russia has become practically impossible,” Zhdanov, the foundation’s director, said in a YouTube stream on Thursday from a studio outside Russia. “But we can carry on our activities online even more effectively.”

Prosecutors have for years harried Navalny and other opposition figures, but usually under pretexts like violating rules on public gatherings, laws unrelated to their political activities or more recently regulations against gatherings to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

That approach provided a pretense of legal acceptance for political dissent, which is guaranteed under Russia’s 1993 post-Soviet Constitution. But this month’s effort to declare Navalny’s movement “extremist” has been distinct for directly targeting the political activity of Navalny’s nongovernmental organizations.

When they announced the case, the prosecutors argued that Navalny’s groups were seditious organizations disguised as a political movement.

“Under the guise of liberal slogans,” prosecutors said, “these organizations are busy forming conditions for destabilizing the social and sociopolitical situation.”

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