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Despite ‘Extremist’ Label, Russia's Aleksei Navalny Movement Still Targets Government On Social Media

In a June 10, 2021 YouTube video, Maria Pevchikh, the Anti-Corruption Foundation's chief investigator, presents fresh evidence about the August 2020 poisoning attack on Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.
In a June 10, 2021 YouTube video, Maria Pevchikh, the Anti-Corruption Foundation's chief investigator, presents fresh evidence about the August 2020 poisoning attack on Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.

A day after a June 9 court ruling that termed three groups associated with jailed Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny “extremist” and banned them from posting materials online, the Navalny movement’s online investigations of the Russian government and calls for participation in the politician’s Smart Voting initiative continued apace on non-Russian social media.

The swift dissemination of this content underlines the limits to Moscow’s ability to shut down Navalny’s social-media-based movement.

At nearly midnight on June 9, in a closed-door proceeding, the Moscow City Court upheld prosecutors’ charge that the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), the Citizens’ Rights Defense Foundation (FZPK), and the disbanded network of Navalny offices attempted to destabilize Russian society to change the government via a “color revolution” or popular uprising.

“That is, a change of power is extremism. Officially,” scoffed Navalny spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh after the Moscow City Court upheld prosecutors’ suit.

Under Russian law, organizations officially deemed “extremist” cannot post materials online and are to be liquidated, effective immediately. They also are barred from organizing demonstrations, and taking part in elections and referendums. Aside from paying fines, taxes, and compensation for damages, they lose access to their bank accounts and to financial transfers.

But, online, the FBK, which has spearheaded multiple high-profile investigations that target alleged government wrongdoing, was proceeding as usual.

In the more controversial of two videos, Maria Pevchikh, head of the FBK’s investigations unit, presented evidence that linked a supposed employee of the Federal Security Service’s anti-terrorism unit, Valery Sukharev, with the FSB’s alleged August 2020 attempt to poison Navalny with a chemical weapon.

The video also detailed medical documents that it claims corroborated Navalny’s poisoning, but were concealed by the Omsk hospital that initially treated him.

Within several hours of its posting, the video had received nearly 711,060 views and over 18,700 comments – many, if not all, supporting the FBK’s work.

So far, the government, which denies any attempt to poison or kill Navalny, has not responded to the allegations.

In an earlier video, Anti-Corruption Foundation attorney Lyubov Sobol examined the “shockingly expensive menu” of the June 2-5, 2021 St. Petersburg Economic Forum, overseen by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Her look at the event’s alleged financial irregularities has drawn nearly 84,170 views and prompted over 1,680 comments.

Rather than the FBK’s YouTube channel, the investigations appeared on the Navalny LIVE talk show and the 45-year-old politician’s personal channel, respectively.

Neither the Moscow City Court, nor the prosecutors who brought the extremism suit against the FBK appear to have responded to these videos’ publication.

Indeed, two of the three Navalny groups – the Anti-Corruption Foundation and the Citizens’ Rights Defense Foundation – also have not yet been included in the government’s registry of “terrorist” and “extremist” organizations.

The third, Navalny’s network of regional offices, was shut down in late April, shortly before the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, an executive agency that tracks terrorist financing, placed them on the list.

Russia’s communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, does not appear to have requested the U.S. social networks Facebook (which owns Instagram), Twitter, and YouTube (owned by Google), or the messenger app Telegram, registered in the United Kingdom, to remove the groups’ accounts or posts.

A temporary freeze placed on all of these groups’ public operations that month, pending the Moscow City Court ruling, did not appear to hinder their activities on these platforms.

In the run-up to Russia’s September 19 parliamentary elections, that presence could become even more critical for Navalny’s team.

Leaders and employees of “extremist” organizations face a three-to-five-year ban on running for office – a restriction that would affect Navalny even after serving 2 years and 8 months behind bars for allegedly violating the terms of an earlier probation.

The restrictions also apply to those who consulted with or provided any form of assistance to “extremist” organizations, including liking a social-media post. Donors to black-listed organizations face a three-year restriction on running for election.

Former Putin speechwriter Abbas Gallyamov, a political analyst, has termed these exclusions an attempt to falsify Russia’s fall elections.

Yet, on June 10, social media accounts associated with Navalny continued to call on Russians to take part in his team’s Smart Voting strategy for the vote. The posts include a link to the Smart Voting app’s site, which recruits election observers and registers voters to receive alerts about which candidates to support.

The initiative has been credited with securing modest earlier wins for opposition candidates.

Any attempt to shut down the Smart Voting site now in line with Russia’s anti-“extremist” restrictions could be problematic.

As a U.S.-registered company, the host of Navalny’s New-York-City-based Smart Voting site, Google LLC, is not legally obliged to heed a Russian court’s designation of the Navalny organizations as “extremist.”

Although Roskomnadzor has a long-standing tug-of-war with Google, Facebook, and Twitter over banned content, the timing for pushing publicly for the removal of Navalny organizations, employees, and supporters from these platforms could prove awkward.

President Putin is scheduled to meet U.S. President Joe Biden on June 16 at a summit in Geneva, Switzerland. President Biden already has stated that he plans to raise reported human rights violations in Russia with Putin, whom he has described as “a killer.”

“[W]e will not stand by and let him abuse those rights,” the U.S. leader stated on May 30.

As have the European Union and Western countries, the U.S. State Department has condemned the court ruling against the Navalny groups.

“With this action, Russia has effectively criminalized one of the country’s few remaining independent political movements,” commented spokesman Ned Price on June 9.

The movement’s defense team plans to appeal the ruling, and, if the appeals fail, to petition the European Court of Human Rights to examine the case.

For Navalny, though, the Moscow City Court’s decision itself appeared to matter less than his supporters’ response.

Pledging that his reform movement would not renounce its goals, he stressed on June 9 that “millions” of Russians want to fight corruption, establish “fair courts” and “equality before the law.”

“As long as you are there, we are not going anywhere,” he wrote on Instagram.