A blank portrait frame on a bare wall is all that is now left inside the regional HQ of Alexei Navalny’s opposition office in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar.
is supporters are no strangers to Kremlin pressure, but last Monday the government imposed its most sweeping crackdown yet — declaring the Navalny movement an “extremist” network in the same vein as al-Qaeda.
Mr Navalny’s activists shut down all of their offices this week — otherwise they would face jail like the politician himself, who is already serving a three-year prison term imposed in February.
“Everyone who went to work for Navalny knew how it could end: you’re very likely to get into trouble if you openly oppose the government,” Sofia Pilukova, (23), a political science major who served 10 days in January for organising a pro-Navalny rally, said.
The vast regional network of Mr Navalny’s supporters folded as soon as court hearings to designate the Navalny movement as an extremist organisation opened on Monday. Anyone associated with it can now face up to 10 years in jail.
Mr Navalny’s allies view the crackdown as calculated ahead of the September parliamentary elections. A survey by the Levada Centre showed the ruling United Russia party polling just 27pc, an eight-year low, as the brand of Mr Putin’s party, marred by corruption scandals, became increasingly toxic. With Mr Navalny the only opposition figure with appeal outside Moscow’s urban elite, his network of regional offices became a thorn in the Kremlin’s side. The activists have gained a presence across Russia’s far-flung regions, training election monitors, holding investigations into corrupt officials and endorsing opposition candidates.
Ms Pilukova and four others rushed to their office in a nondescript block in Krasnodar and cleansed it of their presence, fearing police could take their leaflets and Mr Navalny’s portraits. Hoping to hang them again some day, they have hidden them. They were already accustomed to being followed and monitored.
When Ms Pilulkova, a tall woman with hair reaching her waist, was hauled into a police station just before the massive pro-Navalny rally in January, an officer told her: “Sofia, you’re here at last!”
The Navalny movement has been denting Mr Putin’s popularity for years, exposing his regime as corrupt. But it wasn’t until Mr Navalny’s near-fatal poisoning by a nerve agent last summer and his return to Russia in January that the Kremlin began seeking to eradicate his movement.
Ivan Pavlov, a lawyer who has fought the Navalny movement’s extremist designation, was himself detained for questioning on Friday. Mr Navalny’s network in 42 cities employed about 180 people, along with thousands of unpaid volunteers. In some regions, like the Siberian city of Tomsk, the activists hold seats in local legislature and are figuring out how they can now carry on. In several regions, the heads of local Navalny offices have already gone to ground.
One regional co-ordinator refused to be interviewed, concerned about legal repercussions. Another was recently abducted and physically threatened.
Leonid Volkov, the driving force behind Mr Navalny’s regional network, described the extremism designation as a “punch in the gut”.
Anastasia Panchenko, who was the head of the Krasnodar office until Monday, said that in recent months, many local politicians had begun to avoid all contact with the Navalny activists, or even mention his name. On Thursday, she drove out of town with another Navalny activist to pick up a colleague from jail who had served 10 days for posting a video.
Alipat Sultanbekova (29) only became active last year after the nerve agent attack on Mr Navalny, blamed on the Russian intelligence. “When a person who is willing to change things emerges in your country and he is attacked like that, you have to do something,” she said.
Mr Volkov hopes that groups of activists in about 30 cities will carry on their work independently.
Ms Panchenko concedes that activists will have a hard time fundraising or canvassing if they cannot use the Navalny brand. But she thinks that the Kremlin’s persecution would only anger activists. “Navalny’s regional chapters were not about the office premise but about people,” she said. “The people are still there.”
© Telegraph Media Group Ltd (2021)
Telegraph Media Group Limited