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'Extremism' As A Blunt Tool: Behind The Russian Law Being Used To Shut Navalny Up

Already in prison on embezzlement charges he says were trumped up, Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny could soon feel the full-force of Russia's anti-extremism law. (file photo)
Already in prison on embezzlement charges he says were trumped up, Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny could soon feel the full-force of Russia's anti-extremism law. (file photo)

Four years ago, a court in the Russian Far Eastern city of Blagoveshchensk watched Kill The Cosmonauts -- a satirical music video that proposed murdering space adventurers for "climbing toward heaven"-- and was not amused.

The court found that the video, by a hardcore punk group called the Ensemble Of Christ The Savior And Crude Mother Earth, constituted "extremist material." It banned the video, on the basis of a 2002 Russian law, and added it to a federal blacklist of prohibited materials.

"It is hard to imagine that the calls…contained in the text could be taken seriously even by the most radical audience," the SOVA Center, a Russian research organization, said in a 2018 report that documented how the law was being misused.

As of April 29, that blacklist of materials considered to be extremist includes nearly 5,200 items, including translations of the Bible, videos made by a splinter group of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf.

If indications are correct, in the coming days a Moscow court will add another organization to the list of "extremist" groups under Russian law: anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny and the network of activist groups that have turned into a major challenge for President Vladimir Putin's government.

Such an order would effectively order the organization out of existence, Navalny's allies and outside experts said.

No Concise Definition

Russian authorities' turn to the "extremism" law in their yearslong struggle with Navalny has again brought the measure into sharp focus from rights groups to legal experts who say it is sweepingly ambiguous, possibly by design: a dragnet to be used against anyone deemed a threat for any reason.

Moreover, the law itself, while stipulating what qualifies as extremism, does not concisely define what it is in the first place. Instead, it merely lists a series of offenses that would fall under the law -- for example, distribution of extremist materials, preparation of extremist acts, and incitement of hatred against religious or ethnic groups. The list also includes criticism of government officials and politicians, and, more recently, public questioning of Russia's territorial integrity.

"Anti-extremism has two meanings in Russia: one legal, one political," said Aleksandr Verkhovsky, the longtime director of the SOVA Center.

Since first passed 19 years ago, he told RFE/RL, "the law has changed, there've been lots of amendments, and it's become significantly much harsher."

Over the years, Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation have spearheaded a string of scathing -- and eye-popping -- investigations into government corruption, targeting some of Putin's closest allies. His most popular one to date, documenting an opulent Black Sea mansion purportedly built for Putin, is among the most watched Russian-language videos on YouTube.

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He's also organized so-called Smart Voting campaigns nationwide, initiatives that aim to sway disaffected voters and siphon votes away from candidates for the dominant, and deeply unpopular, ruling party, United Russia.

In the current case against Navalny, which is expected to result in his organizations being closed down, prosecutors charged that they were "engaged in creating conditions for destabilizing the social and sociopolitical situation under the guise of their liberal slogans."

If upheld, the ruling would result in anyone found to be a member of such an "extremist" organization facing up to 12 years in prison. Additionally, giving money to such an organization could also result in up to 10 years in jail, and anyone seeking to use the organizations' logos, banners, or symbols could be banned from running for elected office.

For his part, Navalny, who returned to Russia in January following months of recuperation from exposure to a powerful nerve agent, has his own individual legal problems: He has been ordered to serve about 2 1/2 years in prison for allegedly violating parole conditions. He and his supporters say the case is trumped up, aimed at keeping him behind bars.

Religious Targets

The first law on the Russian books regarding the issue was passed in 2002, the Federal Law on Countering Extremist Activity, which is the main basis for such cases. Other provisions providing for various punishments -- misdemeanors or felonies -- exist in various other Russian laws as well.

The measure was specifically aimed at terrorism; it was passed at a time when authorities were determined to end all separatist activity in the North Caucasus -- and at a time when terrorist attacks in Moscow and elsewhere were becoming more frequent.

Islamic terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda were the main targets of the legislation, as were fundamentalist Islamic groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir and the missionary organization Tabligh.

After a series of anti-government protests in 2011-12, protests that were organized in part by Navalny, the government began to turn the extremist legislation against other religious groups, including, most prominently, the Jehovah's Witnesses, who were labeled extremist in a 2017 Supreme Court ruling. More than 250 members of the group have been jailed on extremist-related charges.

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"Russia's anti-extremism legislation has remained vague and susceptible to being arbitrarily weaponized by local authorities," Jarrod Lopes, a U.S.-based spokesman for the Jehovah's Witnesses, told RFE/RL. "Russian authorities are making a mockery of the rule of law -- both international human rights law as well as Russia's own constitution, which protects religious freedom."

But the anti-extremism provisions have also been used against other secular targets. In 2006, a journalist was convicted for publishing statements by Chechen separatist leaders. More famously, the provision on inciting religious hatred served as the basis for the criminal conviction of the performance-art group Pussy Riot after they performed a song criticizing Russian clergy in 2012.

In 2019, a Moscow university student who posted a series of political monologues on YouTube was convicted and given a suspended sentence for inciting extremism.

New Territory

In 2020, the law was amended again to add another item to the list of "extremist activity" -- this time to include anyone who questions Russia's territorial integrity, or rhetoric in support of a region's secession. That provision appeared to be linked specifically to Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014, a hugely popular move among many Russians.

"Putin has consistently created laws to serve his purposes," said Maksim Trudolyubov, a former Moscow newspaper columnist who now edits the Kennan Institute's Russia File.

"This time it's expanding an existing law -- that is conveniently broad -- into new territory. The tactic is not new. He's suspended his Ukraine brinkmanship for now. So, he looks reasonable to his counterparts. He is going after domestic 'threats' now," he told RFE/RL. "Apparently, [Navalny] is a designated threat at this given moment."

Verkhovsky, of the SOVA Center, argued that the law has been properly applied in many instances of clear extremist activity.

In 2002, when it was first written, "it's likely [lawmakers] didn't anticipate that it would be used against political groups," he said.

The problem now, he said, is not only the danger of how the law is defined, but the willingness of authorities to use it against a wider group of people, Navalny, or others -- particularly when United Russia's approval ratings are at record lows ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for the fall.

"It's very difficult, and we have elections coming up, and the authorities are nervous, and when they're nervous they start wielding more and more oppressive measures," he told RFE/RL.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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