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Another Hurdle For Aleksei Navalny? Russian MPs Propose Long-Term Ban On ‘Extremist’ Parliamentary Candidates

A protester during July 2019 rallies in Moscow for the registration of opposition and independent candidates for city council holds a poster that reads "I have the right to my own candidate!"
A protester during July 2019 rallies in Moscow for the registration of opposition and independent candidates for city council holds a poster that reads "I have the right to my own candidate!"

In what critics call the Russian government’s latest bid to block jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s supporters from participating in Russia’s 2021 parliamentary elections, the ruling United Russia party and three allies have proposed a bill that would ban individuals connected with so-called extremist organizations from running for the State Duma.

One of the bill’s authors, A Just Russia parliamentarian Nikolai Ryzhak, described the proposed legislation as an effort “to protect the Fatherland from domestic and external enemies who want Russia’s collapse and to accomplish this through influencing young people.”

The government claims that Navalny’s movement is attempting precisely that. The Moscow City Court currently is conducting closed-door hearings on prosecutors’ charge that Navalny’s regional offices, Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), and Citizens’ Rights Protection Foundation rank as “extremist” organizations intent on overthrowing the government.

The groups’ activities have been halted temporarily, pending the Court’s ruling. Navalny’s regional offices shut down shortly after prosecutors suspended their activities on April 26.

If designated as “extremists,” participants in these groups would be barred from running for office. Nonetheless, the sponsors of the election bill -- United Russia, the nationalist LDPR party, the social-democratic party A Just Russia, and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation -- appear to believe that Russia’s broadly worded anti-extremism law needs reinforcement.

Their proposed restrictions, already approved for a floor vote, would apply not only to employees of Russia’s 83 listed “extremist” organizations, but also to their donors and those who have provided them with other forms of assistance, including consulting. That tally could easily reach into the thousands.

Past employees or donors would be liable, too: Individuals who headed an “extremist” organization during the three years before it was officially labeled as such would face a five-year ban on running for parliament. A three-year ban would apply to those who gave money or other assistance to the organization during the year that preceded its classification as extremist.

The Ministry of Justice’s list of extremist organizations includes a variety of religious, political, and far-right groups that would qualify for exclusion from the September 19, 2021 Duma vote under the bill.

But to Navalny’s colleagues, the measures are aimed primarily at the Kremlin critic’s own movement.

“We’ve already seen a ton of ‘laws against Navalny,’ but there hasn’t been anything like THIS yet, of course,” Leonid Volkov, the head of the politician’s now-closed network of regional offices, posted on Telegram. Volkov, who lives in Lithuania, faces criminal charges of allegedly enticing minors to participate in unsanctioned pro-Navalny rallies.

Anti-Corruption Foundation lawyer Lyubov Sobol, one of the most prominent of Navalny’s colleagues, asserts, however, that the draft law demonstrates that the ruling United Russia party fears Navalny and his supporters.

Sobol predicted that the 450-seat Duma, where United Russia holds nearly 76 percent of the seats, would pass the legislation “very quickly.” A floor vote has not yet been scheduled.

The bill “demonstrates that, yes, they have propaganda, they have television, they have falsifications [of election results], they have all the levers for putting strong pressure on the opposition – and yet, all the same, they’re afraid of competition,” she said of United Russia and its allies.

A February 2021 poll of 1,601 adult Russians by the non-governmental Levada-Center suggested, though, that Russian President Vladimir Putin outranks Navalny as Russia’s “most trusted politician” by a wide margin – 32 percent to 5 percent.

Nonetheless, Sobol asserted that voters support “independent, strong politicians.”

The 33-year-old attorney, who has never held elected office, counts herself among that number. Indeed, she believes that the bill is specifically intended to stop her from running to represent Moscow in parliament.

But one of the bill’s sponsors, Aleksei Chepa, scoffed at any such notion.

“What does this have to do with Sobol?” asked Chepa, a member of A Just Russia’s faction. “This law is important in general. You understand that neither criminals, nor terrorists, nor extremists should be in power, among lawmakers, or educators.”

Asked if he knew of any extremists hoping to be elected to parliament, the MP stressed that he did not. Nor is he acquainted with any such terrorists, he added, but that “does not mean … that there aren’t any.”

Ryzhak had a slightly different focus. “Undesirable” groups listed by the Ministry of Justice, he charged, conduct deceitful trainings that call for “free drugs, and free love, and all these new gender issues that are going on.”

Though Ryzhak believes the FBK’s anti-corruption mission is a similar ruse, neither he nor Chlepa identified the Navalny movement as among their bill’s targets.

One regulatory agency has not been so reticent.

On April 30, the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, which counters money-laundering and financing for terrorism, included Navalny’s offices on its list of extremist and terrorist organizations. This move automatically blocks the shuttered offices’ access to bank accounts.

If also deemed “extremists” by the Moscow City Court, the offices, plus the two Navalny foundations, would not be able to run any kind of public campaign, use the Internet, or accept financial support.

Nonetheless, such moves do not appear to faze Sobol. The activist advised that those who oppose United Russia in the 2021 vote make use of Navalny’s public and Internet-reliant Smart Voting campaign.

Under this e-initiative, voters back the anti-government candidate whom the Navalny team believes has the best chance of defeating United Russia, based on polling data.

If the 2021 anti-government votes are split up, then, “of course, United Russia will make it through” into parliament, Sobol predicted.

Analysts have credited the tactic for United Russia losing 13 seats in the 45-member Moscow city council in 2019, and causing the party further losses in Russia’s 2020 local elections.

Sobol does not appear to envision any legislation reversing that trend and denying Navalny supporters a chance at the polls.

“I have the right to participate in elections and, of course, I’ve never been an extremist,” she remarked.

The proposed ban on “extremist” Duma candidates, she added, is “pretty funny.”