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Navalny groups threatened with ‘extremist’ label

Doctor of Political Science, Professor at the Department of Political Science, European University at St. Petersburg

Grigorii Golosov reviews the legal implications of the government’s ‘extremist’ label for Alexey Navalny’s supporters

On April 16, 2021, the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office submitted a lawsuit to the Moscow City Court seeking to recognize the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), the Citizens’ Rights Protection Foundation (FZPG), and Alexey Navalny’s regional headquarters as extremist organizations. All are affiliated with the imprisoned opposition politician Alexey Navalny.

Founded in 2011, FBK is the oldest one and has long served as Navalny’s launching pad for anti-corruption projects like RosPil (exposing procurement theft), RosYama (potholes), Good Machine of Truth (a news platform), RosZhKKh (communal services), and Navalny’s Union (state salaries). In 2019, the Ministry of Justice added FBK to its foreign agents list, which carries serious restrictions but not an outright ban. By July 2020, shortly before the attempt to poison him, Navalny announced the FBK’s dissolution and replacement with a new organization, the FZPG. Nevertheless, the FZPG too was designated as a foreign agent in December 2020.

Navalny’s regional headquarters were set up in 2017 as campaign offices to support his candidacy for president in 2018, a candidacy the electoral commission ultimately rejected. Still, the HQs continued to exist. They proved instrumental for Navalny’s most consequential electoral project, Smart Voting. However, none of these offices were ever officially recognized as organizations. In the past, Navalny repeatedly attempted to launch his own political party, variously titled People’s Alliance, Party of Progress, and since 2014, Russia of the Future. All these attempts faced resistance from the Russian authorities. So Navalny’s HQs remained an unofficial political structure. In Russian law, these organizations were denied existence. All until the moment the prosecution demanded to recognize them as extremist. Navalny’s supporters lack a political party not out of choice, but due to the Russian government’s attempts to block them from elections.

The Moscow prosecution’s suit will be granted. Few doubt that. And an extremist label will deal a blow to Navalny’s organizational infrastructure. A look at the legal implications shows how destructive this blow might be.

According to the 2002 Federal Law on Combatting Extremist Activity (as amended since 2014) and its related articles in the Criminal Code, participation in an extremist organization is punishable by a fine of up to 40,000 rubles. Either that gets withheld from the defendant’s salary or up to three months of income. Or there’s a prison sentence of up to two years. And it comes with a denial of the right to serve in government positions (Part 2, Article 282.1 of the Russian Criminal Code). As a result, any participation in Navalny’s organizational network will carry a criminal burden in and of itself,. Criminal liability will be established in court simply because Navalny’s organizations will be on the Justice Ministry’s list of ‘extremist organizations.’

Today there are 83 such organizations on the list. Some truly adhere to radical, mostly nationalist ideologies. Only a few actually called for violent acts; even fewer carried them out. The list includes plenty of sports fan organizations. Admittedly some of those fans did get violent, but are in no way political. It also includes non-traditional religious cults, some of which can be regarded as totalitarian sects. But most of those just have an odd approach to religion. Civil rights defenders widely criticized the addition of Jehovah’s Witnesses to this list. Many called it a violation of religious freedom, a principle enshrined in the constitution. This was remarkable due to the organization’s large membership and wide distance from politics.

Adding Navalny’s network to the ‘extremist organizations’ list is a departure from precedent. His organizations are massive compared to previous entries on the list. Their goals are also exclusively political. They have made no conceivable call for violence. Nor are they extremist under any reasonable definition. The Moscow Prosecutor’s Office is justifying its lawsuit by noting that “under the cover of liberal slogans, these organizations are forming the conditions for destabilizing the social and societal-political situation.” With the lack of clarity in this statement, it is impossible to accuse Navalny’s organizations of any concrete act tied to extremism as defined in the law on extremist activity.

None of Navalny’s organizations ever called for overthrowing the constitutional order or the violation of Russia’s territorial integrity. Nor have they justified terrorism, incited social, racial, national, or religious hatred, or supported any form of group exclusivity. FBK and its successor, FZPG always focused on anti-corruption investigations. Navalny’s HQs indirectly worked with elections.

With its accusation of “liberal slogans,” even the Moscow prosecution unwittingly admits that Navalny’s organizations have no ideological basis in extremism as defined by law. Unfortunately, the lack of any substantive justification for labeling Navalny’s network as extremist does not inspire optimism for dismissal in court. The prosecution’s suit is politically motivated, and this will carry the day in court.

Widening the scope for persecution

Furthermore, applying the extremism law and related articles of the Criminal Code to members of Navalny’s organizations colossally widens the scope for political persecution. This tactic could result in suffering for a huge number of the Russian government’s opponents. Navalny’s regional HQs are first in line for this treatment.

FBK and FZPG employees are easy to identify. Russian law officially recognizes their organizations as nonprofits. Many of them are already victims of persecution and restrictions for their political activity. Others operate from abroad, out of the Russian authorities’ immediate reach. Even so, the extremist label has implications for people outside Navalny’s network. The courts are likely to crack down on the distribution of FBK’s anti-corruption content and, even more so, on those giving donations as participation in FBK’s work. That stands to threaten a significant population of Internet users with criminal liability.

Thousands across Russia joined in Navalny’s HQ-run activities. It is not difficult to identify their most active members; many are already being persecuted. Repressing them will be easier now that it can be based merely on their participation instead of anything specific. The main danger is that almost any Russian citizen can be accused of colluding with a Navalny office simply by expressing agreement.

The regional HQs’ previous nonrecognition as organizations is the reason why any number of people can now be accused of participating in them. Therefore, from now on, any expressed sympathy for the imprisoned political leader will be equated with extremist activity.

Labeling Navalny’s organizations as extremist creates a baseline for an unprecedented expansion of political repression in Russia. Considering these organizations make up a considerable portion of today’s opposition movement, especially on the regional level, the new threat to political rights and freedoms should not be taken lightly.

The proposed measure also changes the relationship between the Russian government and the officially recognized ‘democratic’ organizations that are outside Navalny’s orbit and do not recognize his leadership. Even now, publicly rejecting Navalny has become a de facto condition for such groups’ electoral existence. The Yabloko Party, one of the oldest and most relevant examples in this category, clearly demonstrated this with its leadership’s declaration on Navalny. While the government could earlier rely on political pressure alone to achieve this effect, now it has a legal tool for doing so.

Russia is mimicking the Uzbek mode of governance

The move to designate Navalny’s organizations as extremist has not received much of a reaction across Russian society. Though it can significantly impact the course of Russian electoral authoritarianism. The Putin regime, as a dictatorship based on personality rather than ideology, had avoided banning opposition activity outright as long as it was not radically nationalist. In this sense, Russia differed from Uzbekistan, for example, where all legal political parties are required to share a set of ideological principles. The drift in the direction of this model is obvious and it is fraught with massive repression and drives the opposition underground. Even so, the Russian regime’s personalistic streak means that the criteria for political exclusion are personal, not ideological.

Photo: Scanpix