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MOSCOW – As a weathered opposition activist at the age of 25, Viktoria Reich knows the Russian prison system all too well.
She was surprised when her handwritten letters to imprisoned colleagues were repeatedly rejected.
In them she had relayed the news that Leonid Volkov, Alexei Navalny’s right-wing man, had announced the closure of nearly 40 election campaign offices across the country – including the one to which they had dedicated their lives in the city of Yekaterinburg.
Prosecutors urged that Navalny’s groups be labeled extremist and equated with terrorists like al-Qaeda. Continuing coordinated protests or campaigns had become too risky.
The campaign offices had played a crucial role in spreading the Navalny embassy in the regions of Russia. It was largely thanks to them and the internet that he had become a figure of national importance. The news that they are now being dismantled had received widespread media coverage and could hardly be classified as sensitive information.
“I was told that the letters would be blocked because they contained the words ‘Navalny’ and ‘Volkov’,” Reich told POLITICO. “How can you forbid certain names? In Russia, Volkov is a common family name! “
This is just one of many examples of how far the attempt to attack and discredit Navalny and his staff has gone in recent weeks. “It is as if the whole country is in a state of war,” said Reich. “Some people treat you like your family, others like a criminal who needs to be locked up.”
So far, she has managed to evade arrest by going into hiding. But all of her (now former) colleagues were arrested in connection with a protest on April 21st. The protest, which took place in dozens of Russian cities, was a last-ditch effort to secure independent medical care for Navalny, whose health has reportedly plunged since his arrest in late January.
But as the former head of the Navalny branch in Yekaterinburg, Alexey Gresko, told a small crowd of demonstrators a few minutes before he was led away by the police: their struggle is greater.
“The flywheel of oppression has been unleashed. Today it is directed against Alexei, tomorrow it will be each of us, ”he said. Earlier that day, law enforcement officers raided his home and campaign headquarters and confiscated computers and other hardware.
Russia’s die-hard opposition tends to shake off such harassment and brief stays behind bars – Gresko is currently serving a 29-day prison sentence for violating protest laws – than just one more day in the office. But even the coolheads admit that Russia is going through a fundamental change.
By the time Gresko is released, the protest that he helped organize a few weeks ago will belong to a different era.
If a Moscow court rules against Navalny’s groups – and with a temporary freeze on their activities, the signs certainly point in that direction – organizers of “extremist” protests or campaigns could face a 10-year prison sentence. Even a loose connection with the Navalny network, for example through support in the form of donations or in social media, could be prosecuted.
The path of Vladimir Putin’s leadership has long been clear. In particular, his most recent term in office was defined by the squeezing of civil society through increasingly restrictive laws stamped by a puppet parliament. But in recent weeks the drum beat of repression has picked up an accelerated pace that has shocked even seasoned kremlinologists.
“We wake up every day in a new country!” Analyst Konstantin Gaaze recently phoned Dozhd television, one of the few remaining independent media outlets.
Most commentators will point to the autumn parliamentary elections and Navalny’s return to Russia in late January after being treated for novichok poisoning in Germany as reasons behind the crackdown.
According to Navalny, his survival was an affront to Putin. And even if it wasn’t, Navalny’s later behavior was undoubtedly so.
From the moment he woke up from his coma, Navalny publicly pointed his finger at Putin for ordering his assassination attempt – the Kremlin has denied any link to the poisoning. Navalny gave the alleged henchmen a name and a face in humiliating YouTube videos. After that – and perhaps worst of all – he had the gall to return to Russian soil.
Many, including some in Navalny’s camp, thought the Kremlin could let him go.
That didn’t happen. The opposition leader was arrested as soon as he entered Russia. A recycled embezzlement case (which Navalny’s allies and the European Court of Human Rights consider politically motivated) served to lock him away for years.
Instead of the grand finale, Navalny Prison only served as a signal for more whip crackers, first on the streets – protests in support of Navalny resulted in more than 13,000 arrests – then beyond.
The police made house calls using a sophisticated CCTV network. The sigh of relief that followed when he returned home unscathed from a protest is a thing of the past.
Several journalists and even a student newspaper are being examined to highlight the Navalny protests. And last month, Meduza’s popular news website was branded a “foreign agent”, sparking an advertiser exodus. (The outlet managed to avert bankruptcy thanks to a crowdfunding campaign.)
Lawyers also sit on the defendant’s bench. Ivan Pavlov, a prominent treason attorney who also represents Navalny’s groups on extremism, was recently arrested.
“First they persecuted activists, then journalists, now lawyers. Do not ask who the bell rings for – the Kremlin bell rings for every Russian citizen under the most exotic pretexts. To use an old expression: show me the man and I’ll show you the crime, ”wrote political scientist Andrei Kolesnikov in VTimes, quoting a well-known phrase from Stalin’s extremely ruthless chief of the secret police.
Such parallels to Stalin’s great terror and, less dramatically, to the repressive stagnation of Leonid Brezhnev’s late period are widespread today.
And while today’s Russia is far from being a gulag state, the comparisons reflect a general atmosphere of utter lawlessness.
Just as Putin restored the Soviet national anthem after taking power with changed texts, there is a clearly punitive Soviet melody for the latest action, no matter how different the details may be.
At least the new method of dealing with dissent is a departure from the sly way the Kremlin defused the last major wave of protests in 2011-2012 by fulfilling or appearing to be fulfilling some of the demands.
“Just as it did then, the Kremlin is now trying to outdo the opposition. But this time those responsible are not managers, they are men in military uniforms, ”said Gaaze, expressing the widespread view that the Russian military security establishment is increasingly in charge.
“[Before it used to be]: You came out in protest, but we have already solved the problem. Now it is said: You are going to protest, but we are already waiting for you at the door. Or we will pick you up afterwards. ”
Indeed, vaguely worded laws, coupled with the turbo-charged allegations against Navalny and his staff, have many Russians wondering if they’re the next.
Russian law precludes retrospective prosecution of those who have supported the Navalny movement in the past. But in Russia today there is simply no such thing as certainty.
“If you want to exclude risks, you have to delete everything in your social media accounts that is linked to Navalny or the FBK,” warned prominent lawyer Pavel Chikov recently, referring to the Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK).
Russian parliamentarians have also proposed laws that would prohibit anyone involved in extremism from voting in State Duma elections. As it was written, the law would work retrospectively and exclude Navalny employees as well as thousands of ordinary Russians from political involvement.
Everything seems to serve the sole purpose of rolling out the red carpet for the ruling United Russia party to win a parliamentary majority in the autumn elections. But even after that, the Russians shouldn’t expect a thaw, warn many analysts.
“The infidelity [to the Kremlin] were turned into terrorists… That also means that you cannot make concessions, because that means that your demands will only increase, ”political scientist Vladimir Pastukhov told Dozhd.
For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s organized opposition is banned. Yet many in Navalny’s camp deny the idea that they are done. They argue that Navalny was just a lightning rod to Russians’ displeasure with fluctuating living standards, general dissatisfaction with the status quo, and local concerns, such as the environment.
In Yekaterinburg, Reich has seen a significant change since 2017, when most of Navalny’s campaign offices first opened stores. “People come to us now and ask: When is the next protest? It’s a horizontal movement. ”
It does not rule out that former campaign workers could start a new group and go alone. “They can prohibit you from participating in formal politics, but they cannot prohibit you from thinking and acting on your principles,” she said.
And therein lies the irony: if the Kremlin is aiming for total control, it can blindfold itself. After an unpopular move to raise the retirement age in 2018, the number of Russians who believe their country is going in the wrong direction has skyrocketed, and it has remained at around 40 percent since then, according to the independent levada, according to the Center Pollster Show. And after Putin hit an all-time high after annexing Crimea, his approval rating fell back to 2011-12, when tens of thousands took part in protests against the Kremlin.
Commenting on the Radio Svoboda website, analyst Abbas Gallyamov said: “The authorities have taken away their own barometer. Something stirs in the depths. At some point it will inevitably burst to the surface and surprise you. “
Or, as Reich emphasizes optimistically: “Yes, it is a new era. But even these have to end at some point. “