State prosecutors in Moscow have filed a lawsuit to designate Alexey Navalny’s entire anti-corruption and political infrastructure as “extremist” organizations, effectively outlawing all of these groups. Specifically, officials are targeting the Anti-Corruption Foundation and the Citizens’ Rights Protection Foundation (both of which Russia’s Justice Ministry has already designated as “foreign agents”), as well as Navalny’s nationwide network of campaign offices. Meduza asked Valeriya Vetoshkina, a human rights lawyer at Team 29, what might happen to everyone now working and volunteering at Navalny’s organizations, and what the authorities could do to supporters.
What happens if a Russian court agrees to designate the Anti-Corruption Foundation, the Citizens’ Rights Protection Foundation, and Alexey Navalny’s network of campaign offices as “extremist organizations”:
The moment the ruling enters force (after a likely appeals process), anyone formally listed as managerial staff could be charged with a felony “for organizing the activities of an extremist organization” and face a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
The authorities could also impose six-year prison sentences on ordinary employees and anyone guilty of “deliberate actions related to the continuation or resumption of this organization’s activities (such as conducting conversations to promote the banned organization’s activities, directly participating in ongoing activities, and so on).”
Anyone who finances these groups (through donations, for example) or assists as a volunteer could be imprisoned for up to eight years.
Anyone convicted of the activities listed above could be added to Russia’s federal registry of terrorists and extremists, which would block all their bank accounts and limit their legal monthly spending to 10,000 rubles ($130) — excluding the payment of fines, taxes, and so on. These restrictions would also apply to all of their family members.
Navalny’s organizations would lose the right to organize public events.
Displaying the symbols or logos of an extremist organization is punishable by a fine or 15 days in jail. Anyone convicted of this offense loses the right to stand for elected office for one year.
The good news for Navalny’s supporters is that the extremist designation can’t be retroactive, meaning that past supporters can’t be prosecuted for their donations. The bad news is that anyone who published the group’s symbols or logos can be prosecuted if the content is still accessible. In other words, Russians who shared these images on social media (even years ago) risk being prosecuted if they don’t delete those posts very soon.
It’s unclear what will happen to the investigative reports (like the documentary about Vladimir Putin’s “palace” on the Black Sea) and other materials released over the years by Navalny’s organizations. Logically, neither social networks nor media outlets should be held accountable for disseminating the groups’ content because they shared these materials before the Russian justice system ever outlawed the Navalny apparatus. Russian law enforcement is unpredictable, however, because the authorities view “dissemination” and “publication” not as a one-time event but as a process that doesn’t end until the materials are no longer publicly accessible.
Technically speaking, an organization’s materials aren’t automatically designated as extremist just because the group itself is banned for extremism. In other words, it wouldn’t instantly become illegal to summarize one of the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s investigative reports. How this plays out in reality, however, would be an issue of enforcement. It’s likely that Russian courts would eventually ban everything these organizations ever published.
Whatever the authorities decide about Navalny’s investigative reports and campaign materials, media outlets would definitely be required to specify whenever mentioning these groups that the Russian authorities have designated them as “extremist” (just as news outlets now have to identify them as “foreign agents”).
The court’s ruling will concern these specific organizations, meaning that Navalny’s team could maintain operations by simply creating new groups, in theory. But, as a cautionary tale, consider Mikhail Khorodovsky’s experience with the “Open Russia” movement. In 2017, the Russian authorities banned the Britain-registered organization “Open Russia” as “undesirable” and then proceeded to persecute members of the identically named “Open Russia” movement in Russia. In 2019, this latter group dissolved itself, and its activists established yet another structure with the same name but failed to get the Justice Ministry’s formal registration. Today, law enforcement regularly disrupts the new movement’s events and prosecutes its members. (Most recently, police in Moscow dispersed a conference of independent municipal deputies held in March 2021.) To make matters worse for the Navalny campaign, the “extremism” designation in Russia is even more serious from a legal perspective than “undesirability.”