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How the Kremlin will try to break up Navalny's network

Russia's government is using an extremism trial to put an end to the movement surrounding the opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

Alexey Navalny in foreground with hand on head and two police officers in the hallway behind him

Navalny waits as his Anti-Corruption Foundation offices are searched in December 2019

Four months after the Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny's arrest, the government appears to be working to put an end to the movement that supports him. On Monday, a closed-door trial against his organization on charges of extremism was set to begin at the Moscow City Court before it was pushed back to June 9 after the defense introduced new documents as evidence.

In the dock will be Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) and the politician's regional offices. The organization will likely be broken up and employees could face long prison sentences. A prior court decision in late April halted all political events and publication activity by the groups as well as freezing their bank accounts.

Moscow prosecutors accuse Navalny and his supporters of seeking to destabilize Russia "under the guise of liberalism." They say the organization aims to change the "tenets of constitutional order" via "color revolution" — a term used to describe opposition protest in post-Soviet countries, such as the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Navalny's supporters deny the accusation.

Moscow City Court, Russia

The trial will take place behind closed doors at Moscow City Court

'Putin's plan'

The trial will be Russia's toughest attack on Navalny's organization to date. And prosecutors have his showcase project, the Anti-Corruption Foundation or FBK — which he founded as non-governmental organization (NGO) in 2011 — in their sights. 

With his paths to politics and state-run media blocked, Navalny began concentrating on investigating corruption and then publishing his findings on social media. His FBK operates like a crowd-funded media outlet, producing blockbuster investigative reports such as its video of a Black Sea palace the group claims is owned by Russian President Vladimir Putin — the film has been clicked more than 100 million times since it was uploaded onto YouTube in January.

But the FBK has been under increasing pressure since 2019, when investigators accused it of money laundering, among other offenses. After numerous raids, bank account seizures and lawsuits, Navalny was forced to announce the dissolution of the outfit, followed by the founding of a new one to replace it.

One new aspect of the Moscow trial is the fact that Navalny's entire nationwide support network — which he created and used to drum up support for "smart voting" while running as a nonregistered candidate in Russia's 2018 presidential election — could now be banned. Smart voting refers to the tactic of voting for candidates with the best chances of defeating or at least slowing the Kremlin party: United Russia.

With parliamentary elections for the State Duma set to take place in September, Navalny's chief campaign manager, Leonid Volkov, sees a connection. "The extremism trial is just another step in Putin's plan to destroy our political network," Volkov told DW. In order to avoid punishment, Volkov announced the break up of all regional campaign offices in late April. Now those offices are officially on their own. 

Navalny's chief campaign manager, Leonid Volkov, speaks to DW

Navalny's campaign manager, Leonid Volkov, says the extremism trial is a political tactic

Long prison sentences

If the past is any indication, the verdict will likely be in the prosecution's favor: The "extremist" designation would trigger bans on symbols and financing, top organizers would face prison sentences of up to 15 years, and rank-and-file members could be thrown in jail for two to six years.

Navalny's organizations would be added to the Justice Ministry's list of banned entities. Currently, more than 80 names are on the list, including suspected Islamic extremists, neo-Nazis and other militant groups, Jehovah's Witnesses, paramilitary Ukrainian nationalists, and the Mejlis, who represent Tatars on the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia occupied and annexed in 2014. Some exceptions have allowed a small number of groups, like the National Bolshevik Party (NBP) — a fringe left-wing outfit — to reinvent themselves after being banned. The NBP, for instance is now called the Other Russia, though the nonparliamentary opposition group's influence is marginal at best.

It is unclear how Navalny's supporters might seek to reestablish organizations banned by the state. Volkov says they'll reorganize but putting together mass street protests, for example, would seem impossible. Top leaders such as Volkov and FBK director Ivan Zhdanov could be forced to flee the country and broadcast Navalny's YouTube Live channel to his 2.5 million subscribers from exile.

Financing would become increasingly difficult, too. That is why Volkov is not counting out soliciting donations from Russians living abroad as the threat of being labeled an extremist would end the support the organization has enjoyed at home. Ultimately, Navalny's reputation would suffer, too. Russian media outlets would be legally required to declare he and his organizations as extremists every time they reported on them.

Protesters marching for Navalny's release in St. Petersburg on April 21

Protests for Navalny's release in April may have been the last of their kind

Permanently muzzling Navalny?

The trial is also being accompanied by proposed legislation that would block Navalny's supporters from being elected to the Duma. A bill now making its way through the parliament would block members of extremist organizations from campaigning for the body for five years. The rule would not only apply to a group's members but also to anyone who makes donations to it.

"With discontent growing, Russian politicians are doing everything they can to neutralize opposition," said Hans-Henning Schröder, a leading Russia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "After it became clear that Navalny's organization only had limited backing in society, they decided to try to get rid of him for good."

Navalny's supporters have been calling for his release since the beginning of the year. The last nationwide protests, in which more than 450,000 people pledged to participate, took place on April 21. It was the last event of its type to take place before such gatherings were banned. 

Watch video 03:23

Russia moves to brand critics as 'extremists'

This article has been translated from German by Jon Shelton