MOSCOW – Russian authorities have opened new criminal proceedings against the two closest allies of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the latest in a series of measures aimed at suffocating his already struggling squad.
The commission of inquiry on Tuesday announced an investigation against Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov, accusing them of fundraising for extremist groups. The charge carries a sentence of up to eight years in prison.
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In June, a court banned the Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation and a network of its regional offices as extremist organizations. The designation prevented those associated with the groups from running for public office and exposed them to long prison terms.
The foundation suspended its crowdfunding efforts shortly before the court ruling to mitigate risks to its supporters. Last week, however, the Navalny team announced they were resuming fundraising through the use of crypto transactions that bypass the Russian banking system and would allow donors to remain anonymous.
Russian authorities quickly blocked the fundraising site launched by the Navalny team. The commission of inquiry launched a criminal investigation, claiming that Volkov and Zhdanov were seeking to prosecute the “illegal activities” of the banned organizations.
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Navalny’s two allies have been the target of numerous criminal investigations in recent years and have left Russia.
The two reacted sarcastically to Tuesday’s news. “My friends, this is a real problem. I have lost count of the criminal cases brought against me. what else? ”Zhdanov wrote on Instagram.
Volkov echoed his sentiment in a Facebook post, saying: “Politics in Russia in 2021 is when you’re in a meeting, your phone starts blowing up from push notifications, questions and calls, you casually think, “Oh, probably a new criminal case,” calmly continue the meeting, then check your messages and it’s a new criminal case. “
Navalny, the most ardent political enemy of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was arrested in January on his return from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from poisoning with a nerve agent he attributes to the Kremlin – an accusation rejected by the Russian authorities.
In February, Navalny was ordered to serve 2.5 years in prison for violating the terms of a suspended sentence of a 2014 embezzlement conviction which he dismissed as politically motivated.
His arrest and imprisonment sparked a wave of mass protests that appeared to pose a major challenge for the Kremlin. Authorities responded with mass arrests of protesters and criminal charges against Navalny’s closest associates.
Many have since left Russia, while others have been placed under house arrest or placed under other restrictions preventing them from participating in political activities.
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After labeling Navalny’s foundation and regional offices as extremists, Russian authorities blocked around 50 websites run by his team or supporters for allegedly spreading propaganda from an extremist group.
Navalny’s allies have linked the intensification of repression to the upcoming parliamentary elections in Russia. The September 19 vote is widely seen as an important part of Putin’s efforts to cement his reign ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
The 68-year-old Russian leader, who has been in power for more than two decades, pushed through constitutional changes last year that would potentially allow him to stay in power until 2036.
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As the vote draws near, opposition supporters, independent journalists and human rights activists in Russia face increased pressure from the government. Russian authorities have declared several independent media and reporters “foreign agents” – a label that involves additional government control and carries strong pejorative overtones that could discredit the recipients – and have targeted prominent investigative journalists with raids.
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