"The process was held behind closed doors, and I myself did not participate in it. Even though we demanded it, I was not even invited." — Alexei Navalny, Russian opposition leader, June 10, 2021. Pictured: Navalny appears on screen via a video link from prison, during a court hearing in the town of Petushki, Russia, on May 26, 2021. (Photo by Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images)
On June 4, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning "individuals designated as 'extremists' from running for public offices."
There is little doubt that the legislation signed by Putin is aimed largely at opposition leader Alexei Navalny, now in prison, and whoever supports him. According to CNN:
"The law prevents members of 'extremist' or 'terrorist' organizations from standing in elections for a period of three to five years... Founders and leaders of designated groups will not be able to run for elected office for five years... Employees or financial supporters of court-ruled extremist and terrorist organizations will be banned from running for office for three years."
Five days later, on June 9, Navalny's "Anti-Corruption Foundation," (FBK) and "Citizens Rights Protection Foundation" were declared by the Moscow City Court to be "extremist" organizations. According to CNN:
"The court ordered that FBK be liquidated and its property transferred into the ownership of the Russian Federation, according to a statement from the Moscow City Court's press service.
"The court also banned the activities of Navalny's regional political offices around Russia, which has mobilized protests in the past..."
The court's decision, subject to immediate execution, "also banned the activities of Navalny's regional political offices around Russia" which have upheld Navalny's "smart voting strategy" to support candidates not from Putin's party and which have organized protests in the past.
The ruling has been described by Navalny's lawyers as part of an "unprecedented crackdown" on his activities. It not only bans his allies from running in elections at every level, it also "grants authorities the power to jail activists and freeze their bank accounts," according to US News & World Report.
All this took place a week before the Putin-Biden summit.
Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst at Carnegie Moscow, "told CNN the law threatens not only opposition politicians but ordinary Russian citizens."
"The law is part of a larger campaign against anti-regime behavior in Russia... The battlefield has become much larger, now even a Russian citizen who participates in protests, retweets an opposition post or donates to opposition groups, face the risk of prosecution."
Navalny was imprisoned in January upon his return to Russia from Germany, where he had been recovering from poisoning by novichok, a nerve agent that had had been placed in Navalny's underpants in a hotel in Tomsk. Navalny asserts and has sought to prove, that his poisoning was ordered by agents of Putin.
In Russia, Navalny was immediately imprisoned for having failed to attend parole hearings while convalescing from the poisoning in a German hospital, part of the time in a coma.
The main reason for keeping Navalny imprisoned may well be to make sure that the popular leader is isolated and unable to get involved in organizing opposition to Putin's United Russia Party in upcoming electoral campaigns. Russia's decision to crush all political opposition seems a clear indication of how Putin fears Navalny and his influence over the Russian electorate -- despite the fact that Putin's United Russia party is presently the ruling political party in Russia and has constituted the majority in the chamber since 2007, and even though Navalny is now in prison and in ill health.
Putin, as he came for his June 16 summit with US President Joe Biden in Geneva, either ignored numerous questions from the American press about Navalny's condition, or discussed the situation without mentioning Navalny by name.
When alone with the press, Putin deflected criticism of his crackdown on dissenters by wrapping a justification for his own brutal repression in a criticism of the United States. He cited the actions in the US of the Black Lives Matter movement and the disarray in the Capitol on January 6: "We saw disorder, destruction, violations of law. We feel sympathy with the USA, but we don't want that to happen on our territory."
In an interview with NBC before the summit, Putin said that he could not guarantee that Navalny would be released from the prison alive.
"Look, such decisions in this country are not made by the president. They're made by the court whether or not to set somebody free.
"As far as the health, all individuals who are in prison, that is something that the administration of the specific prison or penitentiary establishment is responsible for. And there are medical facilities in penitentiaries that are perhaps not in the best condition."
According to the Guardian:
Putin maintained his longstanding avoidance of saying Navalny's name, referring to him as 'that person'. He said he hoped the jail medical service would do its job 'properly' but added: 'To be honest I have not visited such places for a long time.'"
Biden responded to the press about Putin's comments by saying that "Navalny's death would be another indication that Russia has little or no intention of abiding by basic fundamental human rights..."
"I made it clear to him that I believe the consequences of that would be devastating for Russia," Biden said.
"What do you think happens when he's saying it's not about hurting Navalny, all the stuff he says to rationalize the treatment of Navalny, and then he dies in prison?... It's about trust. It's about their ability to influence other nations in a positive way."
Navalny's death might be somewhat of a setback for US-Russian relations, whether Putin believes it or not. Putin knows that the US is preparing new sanctions against Russia for Navalny's poisoning.
According to US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan:
"We are preparing another package of sanctions to apply in this case... It will come as soon as we have developed the packages to ensure that we are getting the right targets..."
No matter what Putin says, he seems, at least for now, to have given instructions to his underlings to ensure Navalny's survival in prison. If Navalny is lucky, he might even be released in September after Russia's election -- which Putin's United Russia party is expected easily to win.
Meanwhile, after the summit with President Biden, Putin defended the court ruling against Navalny "extremists" under the new law, by claiming that Navalny's group had shared instructions about how to make firebombs, an allegation denied by Navalny's legal team, who announced that in the court ruling, there was no mention of firebombs.
Another seemingly false accusation came from the judge who presided over the "extremists" ruling. Reuters wrote:
"'According to the judge, individuals associated with the Anti-Corruption Foundation and Navalny's headquarters used Nazi paraphernalia and symbols in their activities,' the lawyers wrote. But no actual link between the individuals and Navalny's organisations was established by the Prosecutor's Office, the lawyers said."
It is these manufactured accusations that are now apparently being used to support Putin's claim that the supporters of Navalny's organizations are "extremists" and must be banned from ever running for office, as should anyone who helps or contributes to their organizations.
In mid-June, Navalny wrote on Instagram: "The process was held behind closed doors, and I myself did not participate in it. Even though we demanded it, I was not even invited." The Russian courts, Navalny also wrote on Instagram, are a "laughingstock."
Jiri Valenta is a non-resident, Senior Research Associate with the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan and a member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations. He previously taught Soviet and East European Studies to four armed services at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School and is the author and editor of several books.
Leni Friedman Valenta is a graduate of Brandeis and Yale (playwriting) and has written articles for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, the Gatestone Institute, Circanada, The National Interest, Aspen Review and other publications.