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Alexei Navalny poisoning marked 'point of no return' for Kremlin critics

Alexei Navalny's poisoning a year ago marked the beginning of a new crackdown on independent politicians and journalists. Labeled "foreign agents," some wonder if staying in Russia is worth the risk to their lives.

Protesters march in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in downtown Moscow on January 23, 2021

Alexei Navalny was poisoned during an investigation in Siberia, sparking a wave of support for him

"I have just flown home. I'm going to passport control. All day I've only been thinking about how they will search me in particular because I am a foreign agent," journalist Olga Churakova tells her podcast listeners in an emotional recording from a Moscow airport. She describes a sense that she is not safe in her home country.

Churakova tries to laugh off her "overactive imagination," but her sense that Russian authorities regard her as an "enemy of the people" is a reality. The 32-year-old was declared a "foreign agent" by the Russian authorities in July, along with her 27-year-old colleague Sonya Groisman and several other journalists.

Today Churakova and Groisman are recording a new episode of their podcast, Hello, You Are a Foreign Agent, in a small Moscow studio. They use the show to talk about the difficulties that come with the label. Along with the Cold War stigma, "foreign agents" have to declare all their income and spending and include a written warning about their status on everything they publish — even on personal social media posts.

Watch video 03:13

Russian opposition a year after Navalny poisoning

Their previous employer, the investigative online outlet Project, was declared an "undesirable organization" in July and forced to close. Project focused on investigations into the upper ranks of Russian business and  President Vladimir Putin's inner circle. It joined a long list of critical media outlets declared foreign agents and undesirable organizations this year, with journalists facing police searches and detention, particularly since protests supporting the jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny in the winter.

Churakova believes the timing of the crackdown on the media and other Kremlin critics is connected to Navalny. The politician was poisoned a year ago with a military-grade nerve agent during a trip to Siberia. Navalny insists that state security agents were behind the assassination attempt, which the Kremlin denies.

Alexei Navalny attends a Moscow court hearing via video link from prison (Preobrazhensky District Court/TASS)

Since January, Navalny has been behind bars on fraud charges he describes as politically motivated

A widening crackdown?

"When Navalny was poisoned, that felt like a point of no return," Churakova says. The journalist thinks authorities were trying to silence the opposition politician ahead of Russian parliamentary elections in September.

A year after Navalny was poisoned, the apparent crackdown has widened.  A court in July declared three of the politician's organizations extremist and a threat to Russia's constitutional and sociopolitical order. The ruling means anyone found to be connected to them could face fines or jail time. On Wednesday, rights group OVD Info reported that over 200 people who registered their support of Navalny on one of the politician's websites received visits from the police this week.

When asked about Navalny's anti-corruption foundation being declared extremist, Putin at a June press conference insisted the organization "publicly called for mass riots and publicly tried to lure minors into taking part in street protests — and that is illegal in Russia." 

Olga Churakova and Sonya Groisman at studio microphones

Churakova and Groisman have a podcast detailing what it's like being a "foreign agent"

Knock-on effect?

Churakova says initially she was shocked that the ripples of the clampdown on Kremlin critics had reached the media as well.

"To be honest, a year ago [when Navalny was poisoned], we didn't think any of that would apply to us," she tells DW. "We exclusively thought it would apply to political activity. And we aren't politicians: We are journalists."

But surveys carried out in March by the independent pollster Levada Center show that even ordinary Russians can sense that the authorities have recently been upping the pressure on government critics — even if only 19% of Russians say they personally support Navalny.

In March, 52% of respondents said they feared a "return to political repression." Fifty-eight percent of people said they were afraid of abuse of power and a lack of rule of law from the authorities. Both of these fears have grown significantly since last year, according to Levada Center surveys.

Opposition politician Yulia Galyamina handing out leaflets in a campaign for another opposition politician in Moscow (Emily Sherwin / DW)

Opposition politician Yulia Galyamina (right) during campaigning for another candidate

Yulia Galyamina, a prominent opposition politician and former municipal council member in Moscow, sees that as a part of the political reality in Russia: "The repressive element of our government machine has always existed under Putin. That is an underlying background that you just have to learn how to work with." 

Galyamina admits there have been more cases of what she calls "repression" in the past year. She herself has been barred from running for office in the upcoming elections because of a suspended sentence over her involvement in anti-Kremlin protest rallies. Instead, she is helping with the campaign of a former human rights activist Marina Litvinovich, who she says is one of the few opposition candidates to be registered.

Activists hold posters reading Freedom for Navalny! during an opposition rally in support of the opposition politician in Moscow (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/picture alliance)

Navalny's arrest led to mass protests across Russia earlier this year

Navalny as a 'black mark'

Since the trio of organizations tied to Navalny were ruled extremists, many opposition candidates have been excluded from the races. As a result, even people who dispute having ties to Navalny are not able to run in the elections. Some, like former Duma member Dmitry Gudkov, have even left the country, complaining of unprecedented pressure from the authorities or fabricated cases against them.

But Galyamina says she doesn't see Navalny's poisoning as a watershed moment for opposition politics in Russia. "You talk about the poisoning of Navalny, but what about the murder of Boris Nemtsov? Nothing new is happening here," she says, referring to a prominent opposition politician who was gunned down just meters from the Kremlin walls in 2015.

"People who are going into independent politics already know what they could expect, and they are prepared psychologically for difficulties. Of course, that is unpleasant, of course, I don't want to be poisoned or put in prison, but I know that those are risks that hang over me. People who are afraid leave the country."

Navalny ally Liubov Sobol (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/picture alliance)

Navalny ally Lyubov Sobol has reportedly left Russia, along with several other opposition politicians

Churakova is not sure that staying is worth the risk, even if the sources she needs for her reporting are in Russia. She is considering leaving the country, even though she is afraid she might never be able to come back. She says that may be the only way she can continue working on investigative stories about Russia.

"If you write about politics and do investigations, you won't have a future here," she says. "You will either be arrested, declared a foreign agent or expelled from the country. It is completely clear that there is no future here. Journalism in Russia is over."

Watch video 05:48

Students in Russia fight for press freedom