MOSCOW—On Wednesday, a Moscow court designated dissident Aleksei Navalny’s political organization, the FKB, as “extremist”—effectively banning it in a historic ruling that stunned Kremlin critics across the country.
The group is now banned from distributing information, from carrying out financial operations, from organizing rallies, and from taking part in elections. If employees continue to work with the group, they could face up to six years in jail.
One day, when the Kremlin publishes transcripts of the secret court hearings, Russian law students will study the case of the state prosecuting a key opposition movement as radicals. Putin critics are convinced that the court ruling, and the decision to keep the proceedings behind closed doors, was purely political—motivated by the fear of losing power just a few days before the opposition candidates planned to register for the upcoming elections.
A prominent opposition politician and Navalny’s longtime friend, Ilya Yashin, painted a picture of the aftermath of the decision in Russia for The Daily Beast. “The Kremlin is scared. They realized that people are getting tired of them and want change, and that Navalny’s team organizes the society leading the public revolt,” Yashin told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “All of Navalny’s 500 team members are now banned from running for elections, but the sentence might also affect about 200,000 of those who donated to FBK.”
Navalny’s FBK was founded in 2011 as Russia’s only non-commercial organization investigating corruption crimes committed at the very top of Putin’s state machine. Navalny and his team have led hundreds of non-sanctioned rallies all across the country, nailing down their main messages: “Putin is a thief!” and his ruling United Russia is “A party of thieves and crooks!” Navalny’s slogans, chanted by hundreds of thousands of Russians at frequent opposition rallies, will surely remain a part of Russia’s modern history.
The Kremlin tolerated Navalny’s movement for a decade but the cold war with the West has since spiraled, and Putin and his closest men have realized they will not see the end of sanctions in their lifetime. The fear of a colored revolution and an increasing number of critics grew and grew.
The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declared in October that Navalny is working with the CIA: “That is not the first time they give him instructions.” The Kremlin’s ideologist, Vyacheslav Volodin, also stated that Navalny works in the interest of Western countries. “That is absolutely obvious,” he said.
The court process against FBK started at 10 a.m. and went on for more than 12 hours after the regular closing time at 5 p.m. It was awfully rushed. The historical process took place just a few days before Putin is set to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden for talks.
Ivan Pavlov, the leader of Team 29’s group of attorneys defending the FBK, told the judge, “The conscience is a trigger that protects us from shame. I hope you come out of the chambers without feeling ashamed.”
Last month, the Russian parliament adopted a law forbidding members of extremist organizations from running for elections for five years starting from the day an organization is banned. “The law against FBK,” as the journalists refer to the new legislation, even threatened to prosecute citizens over social media posts. And now, with Wednesday’s court decision, any participation or support for Navalny’s group will be punished.
FBK’s popularity increased after Navalny’s poisoning last year. According to a social study by the research company Romir, Navalny and his team came fourth in its public rating after Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky. This year, FBK’s leaders planned to run for parliamentary elections. But they were stopped: the court decision prevents them from registering.
FBK’s tenacious defense lawyers, Team 29, brought a suitcase full of motions to the court on Wednesday. One of the attorneys, Yevgeny Smirnov, put a “CLASSIFIED” label on one such motion. “If the court can make everything secret, why can’t we do the same,” Team 29 said on their Telegram channel.
Over the past decade, FBK has revealed the truth behind Vladimir Putin and his closest partners’ lavish life and shadowy deals. Dozens of millions watched Navalny’s investigations on YouTube. Some were better documented than the others, but millions of Russians will always remember its main message: While they violate laws, and live in lavish palaces, we are growing poorer and poorer.
“Our activity will not end,” the head of FBK, Ivan Zhdanov, declared on Wednesday, hours before the verdict. “They should not hope for it.”