MOSCOW – The court on Wednesday described Alexei A. Navalny’s political movement as an extremist, remarkable obstruction of President Vladimir V. Putin, which also sent a message to President Biden before their meeting next week: Russia’s internal affairs are not up for discussion.
The ruling – almost certainly with the Kremlin’s blessing – seemed likely to push the opposition against Mr Putin further, after months of the Russian government’s long-running efforts to crack down on dissent entering a new, more aggressive phase. Under the law, Mr Navalny’s organizers, donors or even supporters of social media can now be prosecuted and jailed.
“Views on our political system may differ,” Mr Putin told heads of international news agencies last week. “Just give us the right, please, to determine how to organize this part of our lives.”
The June 16 meeting in Geneva will come months after Mr Putin dismantled much of what was left 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 authorities say was carried out by Russian agents. Thousands of Russians have since been detained in protest; leading opposition politicians are imprisoned or forced to be expelled; online media are labeled as “foreign agents”; and Twitter and other social networks are under state pressure.
“The state has decided to fight all independent organizations with full bombing,” the Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation, one of the groups declared extremist on Wednesday, said on Twitter, pending the decision.
The Kremlin denies having played any role in the campaign against Mr Navalny and his movement, and insists the Russian judiciary is independent. However, analysts and lawyers widely see 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 over the Navalny case, saying the United States has no right to lecture to others. At Russia’s annual economic conference in St. Petersburg last week, Putin repeatedly referred to the arrests of rebels from the Capitol in Washington in January when he was challenged for repression in Russia or its ally Belarus.
“Look at the sad events in the United States, when people refused to accept the election results and stormed Congress,” Putin said. “Why are you only interested in our non-systemic opposition?”
“Non-systemic opposition” is the Russian term for political groups that are not represented in Parliament and openly call for Mr Putin’s removal from office. For years, they have been tolerated, even if under strict supervision and frequent persecution. Wednesday’s court ruling signals that this era of tolerance is coming to an end.
Prosecutors had agitated Mr. Navalny and other opposition figures, but usually under the pretext of violating the rules of public gatherings, laws unrelated to their political activities, or, more recently, ordinances against gatherings to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Behind the scenes, according to Western governments and human rights groups, the Kremlin has gone further: killing or expelling journalists, dissidents and political opposition leaders. Mr Navalny narrowly survived a chemical weapons assassination attempt last summer. In 2015, another opposition leader and former First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Boris Y. Nemtsov was shot and killed with a gun. But officials denied any role in the actions.
The dismantling of Mr Navalny’s national network marks a new phase of repression against dissent through a formal, legal process to dissolve opposition organizations, although the country’s 1993 Constitution guarantees freedom of speech.
The Kremlin’s campaign against the opposition has intensified since Mr Navalny’s return in January from Germany, where he was receiving medical treatment following an attack by a nerve agent. Police arrested Mr Navalny at the airport and the court sentenced him to two and a half years in prison for violating a suspended sentence for embezzlement, which the rights group said was politically motivated.
In power since 1999, either as prime minister or president, Mr Putin has gradually tightened the screws of dissent and opposition. During the long twilight of post-Soviet democracy during his rule, elections were held, the Internet remained largely free, and limited opposition was tolerated. His system is called “soft authoritarianism.”
But prosecutors this spring asked the court to outlaw Mr. Navalny’s movement, using a label that likens its members to terrorists without bothering to make a public case that nonprofit groups are in fact seditious organizations. The evidence was classified and the case was 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 unconvincing and that he would make it public as far as the law allowed. Within days, police detained Mr. Pavlov on charges of disclosing classified evidence in another case unrelated to Mr. Navalny’s in what appeared to be a warning to avoid the aggressive defense of Mr. Navalny’s organization. He faces up to three years in prison.
The anti-extremism law offers ample opportunities for repressive action against the opposition in the coming days or months, Russian legal experts say, but it remains unclear how it will be implemented.
According to the law, the group’s organizers could face up to 10 years in prison if they continue their activities. Anyone who donates money can be imprisoned for up to eight years. Public commentary such as social media posts in favor of Mr Navalny’s groups may also be prosecuted in support of extremists.
The case is aimed at three non-profit groups, the Navalny headquarters, the Anti-Corruption Fund and the Citizens’ Rights Fund. In a preliminary ruling, the court ruled to suspend the activities of some of these groups last month.
Anticipating the final decision, Mr Navalny’s aides disbanded one of the groups, Navalny’s headquarters, which operated his network of 40 political offices, before the court was able to classify it as an extremist group. Mr Navalny’s aides said they hoped some offices would continue to operate as independent local political organizations.
“Alas, we must be honest: under these conditions, it is impossible to work,” said Navalny’s aide Leonid Volkov in a YouTube video, warning that continuing to work would expose supporters of the opposition leader to prosecution. “We are officially disbanding the network of Navalny’s offices.”
When the case was announced in April, prosecutors argued that Mr Navalny’s groups were in fact seditious organizations disguised as a political movement. In a news 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 instead worked through various NGOs. These groups have continued for years, despite relentless pressure from Russian authorities, to pursue an anti-corruption drive that has disappointed and embarrassed Mr Putin, often using social media to great effect.
Mr Navalny’s movement is the most prominent in Russia, openly calling for Mr Putin’s removal through elections, and his supporters say the Kremlin is determined to crush those efforts before it can bear fruit.