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Russian opposition defiant after Navalny ‘extremist’ ruling

Published: in European News by .

Moscow court cracks down on opposition for causing ‘mass unrest,’ days before Putin meets Biden.

MOSCOW — Russia’s opposition is now on a par with terrorists, after a Moscow court declared that groups linked to Alexei Navalny are “extremist” — but some Kremlin critics remain determined to keep fighting power.

Prosecutors had accused Navalny’s network of causing “mass unrest” by staging unsanctioned protests and fomenting a revolution and, after a 12-hour day in court Wednesday, the verdict surprised no one — least of all Navalny himself, who appeared to have prepared his reaction in advance. “When corruption is the foundation of the government, fighters against corruption are cast as extremists,” read a statement that was distributed on Navalny’s social media platforms shortly after the 11 p.m. ruling.

“We will let things sink in. Figure things out. Change. Evolve. Adapt. But we will not abandon our goals and ideas. It’s our country and we don’t have another one.”

The court had dismissed repeated appeals by the defense to allow Navalny to testify in the case, denying the opposition leader a platform.

This despite the fact that the case files, which were labeled confidential at the request of prosecutors, “featured Navalny’s name on every single page,” one of the team’s lawyers, Ilya Novikov, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station.

Navalny is serving a more than two-year prison sentence for violating parole in an old embezzlement case that the European Court of Human Rights considers to be politically motivated. Navalny’s allies have slammed the jailing as an attempt to neutralize Russia’s most famous opposition politician after he survived a poisoning attack with the nerve agent Novichok last summer. The U.S. State Department condemned Wednesday’s extremism ruling, saying it “effectively criminalized one of the country’s few remaining independent political movements.”

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But ahead of a highly-anticipated meeting between Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden in Geneva on June 16, the Kremlin shows no sign of abandoning its slash-and-burn approach toward dissent.

After jailing opposition figures like Navalny and forcing others into exile, the crackdown has extended to a broader group of activists, lawyers and journalists in recent months.

Last week, opposition activist Andrei Pivovarov, the director of a pro-democracy group linked to former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, another foe of Putin’s, was taken from a plane before takeoff. He is now facing years in jail for his involvement in an “undesirable” organization, even though Open Russia, the group in question, has already been dissolved.

Not long after, opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov fled Russia after he reportedly received a tip that he would be jailed following a raid of his and his relatives’ homes. And the business news outlet VTimes announced it will be folding in order to protect staff from persecution and jail time after being labeled a “foreign agent,” a legal status that subjects it to marginalization and harassment from tax authorities.

The short-term goal of the crackdown appears to be to prop up United Russia, the ruling party, in advance of parliamentary elections this fall. But it is becoming increasingly clear that in the wake of last summer’s so-called referendum on constitutional reform, which allows Putin to stay on as president beyond 2024, Russia’s political system has entered a new phase.

“This is a systemic shift, from hybrid to full-scale authoritarianism,” said independent political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov. “The time for dialogue, even with the moderate opposition, is over. Civil society is literally being branded an enemy and criminalized.”

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A “tsunami” of repressive laws is being used to “create a sense of threat for a huge number of people,” he added.

Wednesday’s extremism ruling will have little impact on Navalny’s organization’s structures, which preemptively disbanded in late April citing the threat of persecution. But for individuals who worked alongside Navalny or have supported him financially or online in the past, it heralds a new period of uncertainty regarding their status. The extremism ruling puts them in the same category as supporters of terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and could result in a prison sentence.

Formally, citizens cannot be retroactively prosecuted. But a recent law passed by the State Duma, barring longtime Navalny associates from running for office, has thrown that limitation to the wind.

Some former Navalny campaigners are braving the new reality head-on, regardless of the personal risks involved. In the northern city of Murmansk, Violetta Grudina is determined to run in local council elections in autumn.

“I didn’t see my name being mentioned explicitly in that extremism ruling,” she told POLITICO by phone. “Vladimir Putin is afraid of us, local opposition politicians, that is what that ‘case’ was all about.”

“But I don’t make a secret of my support for Navalny. And if telling people that a local official is corrupt counts as extremism, then they’d better start preparing my bunk in jail right now.”

Speaking at a British airbase on Wednesday, President Biden said the United States was not looking for conflict with Russia. But the U.S. “will respond in a robust and a meaningful way if the Russian government engages in harmful activities,” he warned.

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However, most commentators agree that if Biden does bring up the topic of human rights with Putin next week, he should expect to be swiftly rebuffed.

“It could even backfire, and used for propaganda purposes to push the line: ‘We, Russia, are prepared for dialogue, while they, the U.S., are trying to tell us how to live,’” said political analyst Kolesnikov. “Seen that way, if nothing at all comes out of that summit, it can be considered a good thing.”

Source: POLITICO https://www.politico.eu/article/russia-opposition-alexei-navalny-extremist-ruling/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication

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