What Happens When Russia Labels You an 'Extremist'

Navalny supporters and journalists face extreme peril inside the country

On June 9, a Moscow court declared the network of jailed anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny as an "extremist organization." Navalny's organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, had preemptively shut down in anticipation of the expected decision and the legal peril that would follow.

There is a precedent for what happens when Russian courts declare a group as "extremist." This has happened to various far right groups as well as to the Jehovah's Witnesses in 2017. 

There is little that appears "extremist" about Jehovah's Witnesses, since the organization has a doctrine of political neutrality. Members of the group do not serve in the military, vote, run for office, recite national anthems or salute flags. However, it is perhaps precisely because of their perceived lack of allegiance to the state, and the fact that they are based in the United States and not a part of the dominant Orthodox Church, that they are viewed as a threat. Their numbers have been estimated at around 175,000 in Russia, which has 144 million people.

The designation has resulted in criminal charges, raids, and prison sentences for adherents. According to Human Rights Watch, 492 members have faced criminal charges, 57 are behind bars, 33 are under house arrest, and there have been over 1400 raids on homes. Others have been tortured by police under "extremism" charges, for refusing to renounce their religion. Its members have been placed under surveillance for months, with authorities recording their conversations and activities. A similar fate could await members of Navalny's group.

The "extremist" law is vague and could be applied widely and arbitrarily. For the next three years, any "supporter" of the organization is banned from seeking political office, including in the upcoming parliamentary elections this September. A supporter could be defined as broadly as someone who posted an online comment. Displaying a "symbol" of the group -- or even having an old social media post -- could result in 15 days in jail or a fine. Anyone convicted of "continued" activity in the group faces prison sentences. For journalists, the situation is also unclear and potentially dangerous. Russian-language news outlets now need to designate his organization as "extremist" or face fines. Even having hyperlinks to old reports by his organization could endanger Russian news outlets. The laws are unclear, likely by design, creating a sense of fear. The Kremlin has effectively shut down the largest opposition group in Russia. Now, the risks are severe -- and not totally knowable. 

Putin's plan appears to be to remain in office for life. However, were he to die or become incapacitated, this move also carries risks. Without any public politics, there could be chaos in the world's second-largest nuclear power.

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