Russia Bans Navalny’s Groups, Drawing New Western Criticism

Russia banned organizations set up by jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny as “extremist,” the latest step in a growing crackdown on critics that drew protests from the U.S. and U.K.

The Moscow City Court ruling late Wednesday formalizes a ban on the organizations, which had already disband in the face of pressure from the authorities, as the Kremlin moves to sideline its most prominent opponent ahead of September parliamentary elections. Authorities accuse him of being a western agent seeking to overthrow the government.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called the ruling “another Kafka-esque attack on those standing up against corruption and for open societies, and is a deliberate attempt effectively outlaw genuine political opposition.”

The U.S. State Department blasted the decision as “indicative of the Russian government’s widening crackdown on political opposition, civil society, and independent media.”

Navalny, 45, has been in prison since he returned to Russia in January following a poison attack last summer that he and western governments blame on the Kremlin. Dozens of his supporters have also been arrested, while others have fled the country. Authorities have steadily tightened laws on protests, political activity and media, including the internet.

Biden-Putin Summit

The Kremlin denies any role in Navalny’s illness and says authorities are just protecting the country against western efforts to destabilize the government.

U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to raise the crackdown with Russian leader Vladimir Putin at a summit in Geneva next week.

In a closed hearing, the Moscow City Court ruled in favor of a motion from prosecutors to bar Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and its successor, which have published high-profile exposes of alleged official graft. The decision also covers a network of regional campaign offices that helped organize protests against Putin.

The designation makes membership in the groups a criminal offense and give the authorities the ability to freeze activists’ bank accounts. The groups were already disbanded after prosecutors issued provisional designations. Putin last week signed a draft law that bars people involved in groups deemed extremist from running for office.

September Elections

The crackdown comes ahead of elections in which Navalny’s allies plan to use a “smart voting” initiative that encourages voters to back the politician in each contest seen as most likely to beat the Kremlin’s favored candidate. Polls show support for the ruling party has slipped amid stagnant living standards and the Covid-19 recession.

Wednesday’s ruling came hours after an investigation by Bellingcat alleged that a Russian poet critical of Putin may have been poisoned by the same Federal Security Service, or FSB, team that allegedly attempted to kill Navalny in the poisoning attack last summer.

Dmitry Bykov, a public intellectual who fell violently ill in 2019 after traveling in Siberia, was followed by the same secret unit that Bellingcat has linked to a series of alleged poisonings of Russian opposition figures, according to the report done in collaboration with The Insider.

“Yes, they tried to poison me,” Bykov said by phone Wednesday, adding he wasn’t involved in the investigation. Spokespeople for the FSB and the Kremlin didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

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