A Russian court on Wednesday began considering a request to declare organisations linked to jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny “extremist”, a move that if approved would ban his allies from a parliamentary election later this year too.
The case, the latest chapter in a long-running crackdown on President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest domestic opponent, could deliver a final hammer blow to a vast political network that Navalny built up over years to try to challenge the veteran Russian leader’s grip on power.
The case is being brought by the office of Moscow’s top prosecutor who has accused Navalny and his allies of trying to foment a revolution by seeking to destabilise the socio-political situation inside Russia with their activity.
The legal offensive mirrors ones waged in the past against far-right groups, organisations and the Jehovah’s Witnesses which were declared “extremist” by courts and banned.
Navalny and his allies have denied the prosecutor’s allegations, casting them as an attempt to try to crush their political opposition to the ruling United Russia party ahead of parliamentary elections in September.
The staff of Ivan Pavlov, one of Navalny’s lawyers, wrote on social media they expected the court to issue a verdict later on Wednesday.
The prosecutor’s request, if approved by the court, would formally end the activity of a network of groups set up by Navalny, 45, who is serving a 2-1/2 year jail term for parole violations related to an embezzlement conviction he says was trumped up.
Specifically, it would target Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation which has produced high-profile investigations into alleged official corruption, and Navalny’s regional campaign headquarters which have mobilised in the past to organise anti-Kremlin protests.
If Russia declares the foundation and regional groups extremist, the authorities would gain the formal power to jail activists and freeze their bank accounts.
The case has already prompted Navalny’s allies to disband the groups. In the run-up to the hearing, Putin last week signed legislation that bars members of “extremist” organisations from running for office.
Given the court is widely expected to label Navalny’s organisations extremist, the new legislation is seen as ending hopes by some Navalny allies to run for parliament later this year.
They say they will try to use a smart or tactical voting strategy instead to seek to undermine support for the pro-Kremlin ruling party, a strategy Kremlin sources have belittled.