MOSCOW – Associates of Aleksei A. Navalny have been forced to dissolve the jailed Russian opposition leader’s network of 40 regional offices, one of his key aides said on Thursday, a move that is pushing internal resistance to the president Vladimir V. Putin even more clandestinely.
The move was inevitable, Navalny’s aide Leonid Volkov said in a YouTube video amid the Kremlin’s latest efforts to quell political dissent. On April 16, Moscow prosecutors announced that they would seek a court ruling to have Mr Navalny’s movement declared an extremist organization, and the court quickly ordered Mr Navalny’s groups to end any public activity, including participation in political campaigns or referendums.
“Alas, we have to be honest: it is impossible to work in these conditions,” said Volkov, warning that continuing to operate would expose Navalny’s supporters to criminal prosecution. “We are officially dissolving the network of Navalny offices.”
Mr. Volkov predicted that if some offices would close, others would turn into independent political entities engaged in local politics. Either way, the end of Mr. Navalny’s national network – from Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea to Vladivostok on the Pacific – represented the end of an era of Russian politics.
Launched before Mr Navalny’s unsuccessful attempt to challenge Mr Putin in the 2018 presidential election, the office network has become the most formidable national political infrastructure outside of the existing set of opposition parties sanctioned by the Kremlin. Offices campaigned for a boycott of the 2018 election, in which Mr. Navalny was not allowed to run, and worked on a coordinated effort to undermine pro-Kremlin candidates in local and regional elections that Navalny’s team called it “smart voting”.
Mimicking Mr Navalny’s splashy corruption investigations posted on YouTube, local offices highlighted what they described as thefts and injustices by local officials.
“Most will continue their work as autonomous, independent regional civic and political movements, with strong people at the helm,” Volkov said of the offices. “This means that everything we have done together so far has not been for nothing.”
Prosecutors have for years harassed Mr. Navalny and other opposition figures, but usually under pretexts such as violating the rules on public gatherings, laws unrelated to their political activities, or more recently regulations against public gatherings. rallies to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
This approach provided a semblance of legal acceptance of political dissent, which is guaranteed by Russia’s post-Soviet 1993 constitution. But this month’s effort to declare Mr. Navalny’s movement “extremist” was distinct in having directly targeted the political activity of Mr. Navalny’s non-governmental organizations.
Hearings in the extremism case continue this week – behind closed doors, as the evidence has been deemed classified. When they announced the case this month, prosecutors argued that Mr Navalny’s groups were seditious organizations disguised as a political movement. In a press release, prosecutors said that “under the guise of liberal slogans, these organizations are creating the conditions to destabilize the social and socio-political situation”.
Mr Navalny appeared via video link from prison at another hearing Thursday – his appeal of a conviction in February of defamation of a World War II veteran that resulted in a fine of $ 11,500. It was his first public appearance since he started his hunger strike to demand better medical treatment.
Mr Navalny ended the hunger strike last week after 24 days, saying his demands had been partially met. On the courtroom video screens on Thursday, Mr. Navalny looked skinny, but as he spoke about the judge’s attempts to interrupt his final statement, his voice was almost as powerful as it was during his dramatic appearances in the courtroom earlier this year.
Mr Putin, Mr Navalny said, was trying to wrap himself in the glory of the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II in order to justify his efforts to stay in power.
“Your clothesless king has stolen the victory banner and is trying to turn it into a thong for himself,” Navalny said, addressing the judge, according to a recording of his speech released by the BBC Russian Service. “All your authorities are occupiers and traitors.”