With ban from Navalny’s group, Putin sends clear message to Biden

MOSCOW – A court on Wednesday named Aleksei A. Navalny’s political movement as extremist, a notable flank of President Vladimir V. Putin who also sent a message to President Biden ahead of their meeting next week: Russian internal affairs do not are not to be discussed.

The court ruling – almost certainly with the blessing of the Kremlin – seemed likely to push resistance against Mr Putin further underground, after several months in which the Russian government’s efforts to suppress dissent entered a new phase. more aggressive. Under the law, organizers, donors or even supporters of Mr Navalny’s social media could now be prosecuted and face jail time.

The decision raised the stakes at the Geneva summit for Mr Biden, who has pledged to push back against violations of international standards by Mr Putin. But the Russian president has said that while he is ready to discuss cyberspace and geopolitics with Mr Biden, he will not engage in discussions about how he is running his country. The question is to what extent Mr. Biden accepts these demands.

“Views on our political system may differ,” Putin told officials of international news agencies last week. “Just give us the right, please, to figure out how to organize this part of our life. “

The Geneva meeting on June 16 will come after months in which Mr Putin dismantled much of what remained of Russian political pluralism – and made it clear that he would ignore Western criticism.

Mr Navalny was arrested in January after returning to Moscow after recovering from poisoning last year which Western officials say was committed by Russian agents. Since then, thousands of Russians have been arrested during protests; opposition political leaders have been imprisoned or forced into exile; online media have been labeled “foreign agents”; and Twitter and other social networks have come under pressure from the government.

“The state has decided to fight any independent organization with total bombing,” Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation – one of the groups declared extremist on Wednesday – said in a Twitter post anticipating the decision.

The Kremlin denies having played a role in the campaign against Mr. Navalny and his movement, and insists that the Russian justice system is independent. Analysts and lawyers, however, largely view the courts as subordinate to the Kremlin and the security services, especially in politically sensitive cases.

Mr Putin has already signaled that he will reject any criticism of the Kremlin’s handling of the Navalny affair by saying that the United States has no standing to lecture others. At Russia’s renowned annual economic conference in St. Petersburg last week, Mr Putin repeatedly invoked the arrests of rioters on Capitol Hill in Washington in January when challenged over the crackdown in Russia or its ally Belarus.

“Take a look at the sad events in the United States where people refused to accept the election results and stormed Congress,” Mr. Putin said. “Why is it only our non-systemic opposition that interests you? “

“Non-systemic opposition” is the Russian term for political groups which are not represented in parliament and which openly demand the removal of Mr Putin. For years, they were tolerated, even though they were closely watched and often persecuted. Wednesday’s court ruling signaled that this era of tolerance is drawing to a close.

Prosecutors had harassed Mr. Navalny and other opposition figures, but usually under pretexts, such as violating the rules on public gatherings, laws unrelated to their political activities, or, more recently, regulations against rallies to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Behind the scenes, according to governments and Western rights groups, the Kremlin went further: assassinate or exile journalists, dissidents and political opposition leaders. Mr Navalny narrowly survived an assassination attempt with a chemical weapon last summer. In 2015, another opposition leader and former First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, Boris Y. Nemtsov, was shot dead with a pistol. But officials have denied any role in these actions.

The dismantling of Mr. Navalny’s national network marked a new phase of repression of dissent through a formal and legal process of dissolving opposition organizations, even though the country’s 1993 Constitution guarantees freedom of movement. expression.

The Kremlin’s campaign against the opposition intensified after Mr Navalny returned in January from Germany, where he was undergoing medical treatment after the nerve agent attack. Police arrested Mr Navalny at the airport and a court sentenced him to two and a half years in prison for violation of parole for a conviction in an embezzlement case which an advocacy group said , was politically motivated.

In power since 1999 as Prime Minister or President, Mr. Putin is tightening the screws on dissent and the opposition has gradually grown. In a long twilight of post-Soviet democracy during his rule, elections were held, the internet remained mostly free, and limited opposition was tolerated. His system has been called “soft authoritarianism”.

But this spring, prosecutors asked the court to ban Mr Navalny’s move, using a designation that equates its members with terrorists, without bothering to publicly argue that the nonprofit groups were in fact seditious organizations. The evidence was filed and the case heard behind closed doors in a Moscow courtroom.

A lawyer representing the organizations, Ivan Pavlov, who had access to the evidence but not the power to disclose it, said after a preliminary hearing that it was not convincing and that he would make public as much as the law would allow it. Days later, police arrested Mr Pavlov for leaking classified evidence in another, unrelated case to Mr Navalny in what looked like a warning to avoid aggressively defending Mr Navalny’s organization. He faces up to three years in prison.

The anti-extremism law offers ample leeway for a radical crackdown on the opposition in the days or months to come, according to Russian legal experts, but it is not yet clear how it will be enforced.

Under the law, the group’s organizers could face prison terms of up to 10 years if they continued their activities. Anyone who donates money can be jailed for up to eight years. Public comments such as social media posts supporting Mr Navalny’s groups could also be prosecuted as support for extremists.

The case targeted three non-profit groups, the Navalny headquarters, the Anti-Corruption Fund and the Fund for the Defense of Citizens’ Rights. In a preliminary ruling, the court ordered a halt to some of the activities of these groups last month.

Anticipating the final decision, Mr. Navalny’s associates disbanded one of the groups, Navalny Headquarters, which ran its network of 40 political offices, before the court had a chance to designate it as an extremist group. . Mr Navalny’s aides said they hoped some offices would continue to operate as autonomous local political organizations.

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

When they announced the case in April, prosecutors argued that Mr Navalny’s groups were in fact seditious organizations disguised as a political movement. In a press release, prosecutors said that “under the guise of liberal slogans, these organizations are busy creating conditions to destabilize the social and socio-political situation.”

Forbidden to form a political party, Mr. Navalny has instead worked through various non-governmental organizations. These groups have persisted for years, despite relentless pressure from Russian authorities, to push an anti-corruption campaign that has frustrated and embarrassed Mr. Putin, often using social media to good effect.

Mr Navalny’s move has been the largest in Russia openly calling for Mr Putin’s impeachment through elections, and his supporters say the Kremlin was determined to crush that effort before he could bear his head. fruits.

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