The Kremlin is preparing the most sweeping crackdown on Alexei Navalny’s followers since his emergence as an opposition leader in 2011, threatening to liquidate his entire political organisation as he fights for his life in a Russian prison.
Using secret evidence, a Moscow court next week is set to declare Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and his regional political headquarters as extremist organisations, labels previously applied to Al-Qaida and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, exposing his staff, supporters, and financiers to stiff fines and even long jail terms.
Navalny allies, who are gearing up for a last-ditch protest on Wednesday to call for the ailing dissident’s freedom, say that they are preparing for the worst.
Ahead of the protest and the extremism decision, some of his regional headquarters staff have gone to ground, while others have begun deleting data on Russian social networks that regularly share information with the authorities. But several contacted by the Guardian said that they won’t abandon their political opposition to Vladimir Putin, regardless of what happens next.
“There’s no doubt that the Anti-Corruption Foundation is going to be recognised as an extremist organisation along with the regional headquarters and yes, it’s going to be used as another attempt to liquidate our entire structure,” said Leonid Volkov, one of Navalny’s top aides and an organiser of the upcoming protests.
Navalny, who has been on hunger strike for nearly three weeks, is said to be dangerously ill in a Russian prison and his doctors have said he is at risk of kidney failure or a heart attack. On Tuesday, he released a statement via a lawyer thanking his supporters and saying he “won’t be gotten [rid of] so easily.”
But it is clear that an era in Russian opposition politics is coming to an end, with Navalny’s organisation being forced underground on the flimsy pretext of it presenting a threat to Russia’s state security.
“We’re going to find a way to continue our work but we’re going to have to do it very carefully to avoid criminal charges against our supporters and employees,” said Volkov. “If we leave it the way it is, then certainly they’re going to initiate a mass criminal case against all the staff of the regional headquarters.”
Over the last decade Navalny has built up a sprawling organisation that includes a renegade newsroom, an investigative team that has revealed the Kremlin elite’s involvement in corrupt schemes, an elections research centre targeting ruling party United Russia and more than 35 regional headquarters.
Many of the employees say that they’re likely to be targeted next as the Kremlin appears ready to root out the opposition around the country.
“Every member of the team is facing 10 years in prison but we don’t have the right to know for what,” wrote his Moscow headquarters in a message, referring to reports that the government evidence against the Navalny organisation would be kept secret. The headquarters’ coordinator, Oleg Stepanov, has been held under house arrest since January.
In Penza, a small, conservative city about 320 miles south-east of Moscow, pro-Navalny coordinator Anton Strunin has faced administrative charges and fines for his support for the opposition leader. Police last week demanded he pay the equivalent of more than £8,000 for a pro-Navalny rally in January. That’s “a pretty large sum here,” he said.
Now, with authorities threatening to label Navalny supporters as extremists, he said he is “hoping for the best,” adding that any attempts to punish people who are unhappy with the government are bound to backfire.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to our organisation, but you can’t get rid of the people,” said Strunin. “Let’s say you declare them extremists. We’re not leaving. And there’s a lot of people who are unhappy … jail us, fine us, people are still going to be unhappy.”
The loss of Navalny to prison has dealt a heavy blow to the organisation, leaving much of the organising power abroad. Among those who have fled abroad are Volkov, Anti-Corruption Foundation head Ivan Zhdanov, and Vladimir Milov, a senior Navalny ally who also said he had left the country this week to avoid arrest ahead of the protests. There is a definite dearth of organising power on the ground ahead of the crucial coming days.
“We try to keep working so that nothing changes with him or without him,” Strunin said of Navalny. “It’s a personal thing for me. I’m not just his supporter, I became interested in politics because of Alexei Navalny … he awoke my interest in politics and really changed my life.”
Other organisations that have been declared as extremist include the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which has experienced raids, prison terms, and other heavy-handed political attacks despite being an avowedly apolitical and anti-violence group.
Navalny supporters see little in common with the religious group but say that a crackdown on them could use similar tactics.
Another staff member from a regional headquarters, who asked not to be quoted by name, said she would continue to support Navalny if the court declared his organisation extremist but conceded that jail terms were a possibility. “I think everyone who has supported him now knows this is possible; there is no screen anymore, we know it’s a police state.”
Volkov, who called for Wednesday rally’s because the situation with Navalny’s health was urgent, said that the organisation’s expansion into the regions was “one of the most painful and irritating for Putin.”
“I hope the protest can change things,” he said. “I hope it will open a new page in Russia.”