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Amidst Protests, Russia's Aleksei Navalny Supporters Defy Risk Of 'Extremist' Label

A supporter waves a Russian flag and shouts slogans during the April 21, 2021 rally in Moscow in support of jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny..
A supporter waves a Russian flag and shouts slogans during the April 21, 2021 rally in Moscow in support of jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny..

Whoever gets up early, gets the slippers, a Russian proverb says. Ahead of an April 26 court hearing on declaring jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s offices and his Anti-Corruption Foundation “extremist” organizations, Russian law enforcement appear to be putting that maxim to work with detentions, arrests, and searches of Navalny activists and offices nationwide.

The measures, noted in over 20 locations throughout Russia since early April, preceded a national series of unauthorized rallies on April 21 for Navalny, allegedly in failing health, to receive medical care from private physicians in prison.

“They want to make people think that everyone who comes to a rally in support of Navalny will be considered an extremist,” Zakhar Sarapulov, the coordinator of Navalny’s Irkutsk office, commented to RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities a few days ahead of the April 21 rally.

“And in order to disrupt this rally, they have accelerated the process of recognizing the Navalny and FBK (Anti-Corruption Foundation) headquarters as extremist organizations.”

On April 21, as of late afternoon, Moscow time, the independent police watchdog OVD-Info had recorded 182 detentions nationwide. Ten minutes into the rallies’ 7 p.m. start, that number had grown to 325.

Among those detained are two of Navalny’s closest colleagues: Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer for his Anti-Corruption Foundation, and spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh. Charges do not appear to have been filed in either case.

Extremism does not appear to have been cited in these April 21 detentions, but, under Russian law, “mass disorder” – an accusation prosecutors previously have used against opposition protesters – can qualify as extremism as well.

In the Navalny organizations’ case, Moscow prosecutors charged on April 16 that "under the guise of liberal slogans,” Navalny activists “are engaged in the formation of conditions for the destabilization of the social and socio-political situation."

Leonid Volkov, who oversees the regional network of Navalny offices, argues that the motivation for prosecutors’ case is clear: Russia faces parliamentary elections this fall, and the government wants to disable Navalny’s “smart voting” strategy, Volkov posited.

“They take smart voting as the central threat, and everything that they’re doing politically, legislatively, this is all a struggle with smart voting,” Volkov remarked.

The strategy involves the Navalny team urging supporters to vote for the strongest anti-government candidate in races, regardless of party.

In Russia’s 2020 regional elections, the ruling United Russia party’s loss of control of the city council in the Siberian city of Tomsk was attributed to this strategy. Seats were also gained by Navalny-endorsed candidates in Russia’s third-largest city, Novosibirsk.

In September 2019, analysts credited the project with causing United Russia to lose 13 of its seats in Moscow’s 45-member Duma or city council.

Although far from a landslide for Navalny-backed candidates, these defeats made the politician “really dangerous” for the Kremlin, political consultant Abbas Gallyamov, an ex-speechwriter for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said in 2020.

But if Navalny’s organizations are deemed extremist, running such a campaign or receiving donations will be considered criminal offenses. Donors and volunteers as well as employees would be criminally liable.

“This is a quite serious threat,” commented Volkov.

“If the Kremlin manages to get what it wants out of this, then they’ll actually succeed in doing what they’ve already dreamed about for many years – closing our organization,” he said.

Some Navalny activists appear certain that the Moscow court, not known for its independence from the central government, will rule that they are extremists.

Anti-Corruption Foundation camera operator Pavel Zelensky already has been sentenced to 2 years in prison for extremism, the independent news outlet Mediazona reported on April 16. The charges followed tweets in which he blamed the government for the 2020 self-immolation of journalist Irina Slavina.

In an April 21 interview with Current Time, Ivan Zhdanov, director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, declined to elaborate about the team’s long-term strategy if the "extremist" label applies to all of Navalny's activists.

“[W]e’ll think of something and everything will be fine,” Zhdanov said. The team currently is selecting lawyers and preparing for court, he said.

The prosecution’s evidence for declaring Navalny’s organizations extremist has been marked “secret,” according to the Moscow City Court. It will be presented in a closed court session.

Navalny supporters have jibed that that mean no real evidence against them exists at all.

But, already, police are mentioning “extremism” in their searches of some Navalny offices.

In the western Russian city of Penza, eight police officers reportedly came to the local Navalny office on April 15 after the activists had announced on social media that they had new stickers and banners available.

Described by local activists as “polite,” the police took one sticker and one banner.

“They’ll check the stickers on which is written ‘Freedom for everyone!’ and ‘Russia will be happy!’ for extremism,” said the office coordinator, Anton Strunin, RFE/RL’s Russian Service reported. “They said that they don’t understand whether or not there’s extremism here or not. They need to check it.”

In St. Petersburg, several days before the April 14 arrest of Navalny office head Irina Fatyanova, police searched the premises for “extremist materials and fireworks,” the law-enforcement monitor OVD-Info reported.

Fatyanova claimed on Telegram that the police had come in response to “an oral complaint” that the office supposedly contained “extremist literature, forbidden propaganda literature and materials.”

Fatyanova herself has been sentenced to 10 days in jail for allegedly urging people online to attend an unsanctioned pro-Navalny rally on January 31 – a date when she was already in jail for supposedly having organized a January 23 protest.

She told the court that she did not have access to the Navalny social-media network during her prison sentence, the press office of the St. Petersburg courts informed the daily Kommersant.

That network has become one of the foundations of Navalny’s anti-corruption movement.

But, as police detained supporters and searched Navalny offices ahead of April 21, activists in several regions began deleting their pages from Russia-based social-networking sites such as VKontakte (In Contact) and Odnoklassniki (Classmates) that are accessible to police.

Temporary closures of Navalny offices also have been announced.

Nonetheless, despite the uncertain outcome of prosecutors’ extremism case, no “mass exodus” of the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s 30 employees has yet occurred, Zhdanov said.

In Irkutsk, Navalny coordinator Sarapulov avoided predicting how his colleagues would respond to an “extremist” label. But he stressed that he had already made up his mind.

Even if the Navalny offices are declared extremist, Sarapulov said, “I’ll continue to work” there.

-With additional reporting from TASS

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