Jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption group vowed Thursday to fight on after a court branded it an “extremist” organisation and ordered its closure.
Western countries and the European Union were quick to condemn Wednesday’s late-night ruling, but senior Russian officials doubled down, describing Navalny as an agent collaborating with Washington.
The court decision was the latest move against critics of President Vladimir Putin. Some of his loudest opponents have fled the country and several prominent activist groups and independent media have closed.
The ruling bans Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) and a network of regional offices from operating and, under a recently passed law, prevents those previously associated with the groups from running in parliamentary elections.
The FBK was defiant, saying in a Thursday morning Twitter post: “We woke up, smiled with destructive intent and knowing that we are a ‘danger to society’ will continue to fight corruption!”
What exactly it will be able to do is unclear in the wake of the ruling, which followed a hearing behind closed doors.
Navalny’s key allies still in Russia are under close law enforcement supervision, some under house arrest, and other prominent aides have gone into exile.
Navalny was jailed for more than two-and-a-half years in February after he returned from Germany where he had been convalescing following a poisoning attack in Siberia that he blamed on the Kremlin.
Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, who is in a penal colony outside Moscow, acknowledged supporters would now have to alter their strategy.
– ‘We will not retreat’ –
“But we will not retreat from our goals and ideas. This is our country and we have no other,” the 45-year-old said on Instagram.
The European Union on Thursday condemned the court ruling as the latest effort to “suppress” the opposition.
“It is an unfounded decision that confirms a negative pattern of a systematic crackdown on human rights and freedoms which are enshrined in the Russian constitution,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement on behalf of the 27 member states.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab had described the ruling as “perverse” and “Kafka-esque,” while the United States called on Moscow to end the crackdown and release Navalny.
US President Joe Biden has promised to raise the issue of human rights with Putin when the two meet next week for a summit in Geneva.
The spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry said the international outcry suggested Navalny was working with foreign governments.
“This means that they are politically involved in the story,” Maria Zakharova said, adding that Washington, with its response, was exposing “agents”.
“They show such political zeal because it touches those whom they supervised, those whom they supported politically and in other ways,” Zakharova said.
Russian officials have repeatedly accused the opposition of working for and receiving funding from foreign interests.
Prosecutors had in April requested that Navalny’s organisations be hit with the “extremist” label, saying it was plotting an uprising with support from the West.
Announcing the decision from the Moscow city court steps after a marathon session on Wednesday, a spokesperson for prosecutors said Navalny’s groups had “incited hatred and enmity against government officials, but also committed extremist actions”.
The ruling comes at a difficult time for Russia’s embattled opposition, which had hoped to make a dent in the Kremlin’s monopoly on political life during parliamentary elections in September.
– Elections looming –
Navalny’s network of regional offices had promoted his “smart voting” campaign, which encouraged voters to cast ballots for candidates most likely to unseat Kremlin-friendly incumbents.
Leonid Volkov, a close ally of Navalny who used to run the nationwide network of offices and is now in Lithuania, said Thursday this work would continue.
“Although Navalny’s headquarters no longer exist, we — Navalny’s team — are still working on smart voting,” he said in a YouTube video.
“Our task in the autumn elections to the State Duma is to win as many mandates as possible from United Russia,” he said, referring to the Kremlin-aligned ruling party.
But legislation signed by Putin this month bars employees and even supporters of “extremist” groups from running in elections, paving the way for a clear sweep by Kremlin-backed candidates.
Independent political analyst Valery Solovei said Wednesday’s ruling carried serious implications for many Russians.
“The most dangerous aspect of this decision is that it is retroactive,” he said, noting that even regular Russians who visited Navalny’s website in recent years or donated could be implicated.
“This is an indefinitely wide range of people,” he added.