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Russian Authorities Blacklist Khodorkovsky NGO Ahead Of Protests


Mikhail Khodorkovsky, head of the Open Russia movement and the former oil tycoon who served 10 years in jail after openly opposing President Vladimir Putin, holds a speech at the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin, March 201
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, head of the Open Russia movement and the former oil tycoon who served 10 years in jail after openly opposing President Vladimir Putin, holds a speech at the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin, March 201

Russia's top prosecutor has blacklisted a nongovernmental organization set up by former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a move that puts the group in potential legal jeopardy just days before planned street protests.

An April 26 statement from the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office declared Open Russia to be an "undesirable organization" and said that it was registered in the United Kingdom.

The prosecutor's office also attached the "undesirable" label to the Open Russia Civic Movement, which it said was also registered in Britain, and to the U.S.-based Institute for Modern Russia, which is run by Khodorkovsky's son, Pavel.

Open Russia responded quickly to the announcement, saying that the movement in Russia was "purely a Russian organization" and therefore cannot be deemed an "undesirable organization" under Russian law.

"The decision only concerns foreign legal bodies. The Russian Open Russia movement exists separately and will continue to operate," a statement on Khodorkovsky's website quoted him as telling Russian channel Dozhd (Rain) TV.

Later on April 26, Russian news agency RBC quoted Prosecutor-General's Office spokesman Aleksandr Kurennoi as saying that the "undesirable" designation for Open Russia "concerns only the [groups] based in Britain."

But there was no official clarification from the Prosecutor-General's Office, whose statement accused all three organizations conducting antigovernment activity inside Russia.

"The organizations listed have undertaken special programs and projects on the territory of the Russian Federation with the goal of discrediting the results of recent elections, declaring them to be illegitimate," the statement said.

"Their activities are aimed at inspiring protest actions and destabilizing the domestic political situation, presenting a threat to the constitutional foundation of the Russian Federation and the security of the state," it said.

The human rights group Amnesty International said that by labeling Open Russia "undesirable," the authorities were laying the groundwork to completely ban the nongovernmental group from Russia.

The relevant legislation, signed in 2015 by President Vladimir Putin, gives prosecutors the power to declare foreign-registered organizations as "undesirable" and shut them down if they are deemed to be a threat to Russia's national interests.

'Foreign Agent' Law

That measure followed up a related law from 2012 requiring nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from foreign sources and engage in political activity within Russia to declare themselves as "foreign agents."

The 2012 legislation, known as the "foreign agent" law, also allows the closure of such nongovernmental organizations if the Justice Ministry deems that their activity is harmful to Russia's national interests.

Both measures were loudly criticized by Western governments, and by many of the Russian nongovernment groups that rely wholly or in part on financing from foreign public and private sources.

The blacklisting of Open Russia came just three days before an April 29 street protest the group has been planning -- an effort aimed, in part, at building momentum on nationwide demonstrations spearheaded in March by anticorruption crusader and opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.

Those anticorruption demonstrations -- the largest street protests in Russia since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 -- appear to have rattled the Kremlin.

Amnesty International condemned the Russian prosecutor's designation of Open Russia on April 26, saying the move was "just the latest in a long-standing crackdown on civil society."

"These aren't the first organizations banned in Russia as 'undesirable,' but it's the first time the authorities ban a civil-society group that was founded by Russians and operates only in Russia," said Sergei Nikitin, the director of Amnesty International Russia.

"Open Russia has done a lot to support victims of human rights violations in Russia and denounced Russia's deplorable human rights record, and now itself has fallen victim to the system," Nikitin said.

'Family Of Gangsters'

Nikitin concluded that the Russian authorities intend to ban Open Russia in order to put an end to its human rights activities, its support for independent political candidates, and its media work.

Khodorkovsky, once Russia's wealthiest businessman, built up Russia's largest oil company before he was thrown in prison on charges his supporters say were trumped up, and the company's assets were stripped away by the Russian state.

Following his release from a Russian prison in 2013, Khodorkovsky became an exile in the United Kingdom -- where he has gradually been building up Open Russia's profile and positioning it as a leading opposition force in Russia.

In a series of posts to Twitter on April 26, Khodorkovsky mocked the Russian prosecutor's announcement and said he was proud of the designation.

"Was there ever any doubt?" he wrote in another post that accused Russian authorities of being criminals. "A family of gangsters covering for other gangsters."

With reporting by Current Time TV, RBK, and Dozhd
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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.