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'This Is A Purge': Russian Authorities Dig Up Old Incidents To Sideline Potential Opponents

Russian opposition activist Dmitry Gudkov speaks to the media as police search his country home outside Moscow on June 1.
Russian opposition activist Dmitry Gudkov speaks to the media as police search his country home outside Moscow on June 1.

MOSCOW -- In late April, a court in Arkhangelsk sentenced a former coordinator of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's local office in the northern city to 2 1/2 years in prison for sharing a music video in 2014 that the Russian government later deemed to be pornographic.

"It is astonishing that cases like this even make it to court," defense attorney Natalia Zvyagina said shortly before defendant Andrei Borovikov heard his sentence.

What seemed astonishing just a few weeks ago, however, now looks like a trend, as the government prepares for elections to the State Duma, the lower house of the legislature, that must be held by September 19.

On June 1, the authorities detained former Duma Deputy and prominent liberal opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov near the town of Kolomna, about 120 kilometers southwest of Moscow, following searches at 10 different locations. According to the Investigative Committee, some 140 law enforcement officers participated in the operation.

The charge of "causing material harm through fraud" against him stems, apparently, from a debt allegedly owed in connection with a 2011 agreement under which a company connected to Gudkov rented a basement from the Moscow municipal property office. According to Gudkov's supporters, the basement was returned to the owner in renovated condition at the conclusion of the agreement in 2015, and the company subsequently closed down.

Gudkov could face up to five years in prison if convicted.

According to Gudkov's father, former State Duma Deputy Gennady Gudkov, his son only learned about any supposedly outstanding debt during his detention. "This is a purge of my family," the elder Gudkov told RFE/RL by telephone from Bulgaria. "It is revenge against Dmitry and revenge against me. Apparently, they are under orders to find any pretext to prevent Dmitry Gudkov from running in the elections and to prevent me from returning to Russia."

"It is clear that this is just political vengeance, and it is not only aimed at us but at our aides, our employees, our colleagues, the people with whom we work, and so on," he added. "It is just naked, cynical revenge within the framework of overall lawlessness. As the saying goes, if you want to get someone, you can find a crime. I think they are operating under this principle."

United Russia Sees A Threat

As the election season develops in Russia, the ruling United Russia party could be vulnerable. It is polling at historic lows, according to research by the independent Levada Center, after backing an unpopular pension reform and pushing through the adoption of a raft of constitutional amendments -- including one that could enable President Vladimir Putin to remain in office until 2036.

In the 2016 Duma elections, United Russia won more than 90 percent of the 225 single-mandate seats in the Duma, despite winning only a little more than 50 percent of the vote.

At the same time, the liberal opposition -- before the current crackdown -- seemed stronger than ever. It was unusually united behind the charismatic Navalny, who had led it to relative success in local elections in 2018-20 with his "smart voting" tactic.

That program urged opposition-minded voters to cast their ballots for the candidate most likely to defeat a United Russia rival. Under it, an unprecedented number of independent opposition candidates won mandates in local council elections, giving them a platform to launch Duma campaigns in their single-mandate districts.

The government's current drive to ban Navalny's organizations, to pressure activists around the country, and to restrict independent media and the Internet have been seen as bids to control the elections and ensure a strong result for United Russia, the political organization through which Putin's government maintains a virtual monopoly on all levels of political power.

Open Russia Closes

On May 31, activist Andrei Pivovarov, former executive director of the now-shuttered NGO Open Russia, was taken off a commercial airliner about to depart from St. Petersburg on the basis of an arrest warrant issued in the southern city of Krasnodar on May 29. Open Russia liquidated itself on May 27 to protect its employees and supporters from government repression.

Open Russia was registered in Russia after an organization with the same name, founded by exiled former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and registered in Britain, was designated an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government in 2017 and subsequently closed.

5 Things To Know About Open Russia
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Pivovarov and other activists from the newer Open Russia say that the organization was entirely separate from the British-registered group, but the government has been treating it as "undesirable organization" anyway.

The accusations against Pivovarov stem from an August 2020 Facebook post in which Pivovarov reposted a note from Aleksandr Korovainy, a member of the local council in the Krasnodar region town of Yeysk from the liberal Yabloko party, that urged support for opposition candidates in local elections. Prosecutors allege that the repost constituted "carrying out the work of an undesirable organization."

If convicted, Pivovarov could face from two to six years in prison. He maintains that he is being prosecuted to prevent him from running in the Duma elections.

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In remarks at a court hearing in Krasnodar on June 2, Pivovarov called the charges against him a "farce," adding that prosecutors must be "joking with us" to claim that a Facebook post could be a threat to the government.

"Why am I here, your honor?" he said. "It is simple. It is because I want our country to be a law-based state where we can all live well and comfortably. And I want Russia to have peaceful transitions of political power."

"That is the real reason for this case," he added, "and not the 'terrifying' words in the post that were long ago? Ten months ago. And only now prosecutors woke up."

In comments to Current Time, State Duma Deputy Sergei Ivanov, of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), said he did not plan to seek another term in the legislature because of the unfolding repressions that, he argues, could affect even the so-called "systemic" opposition -- the LDPR and two other parties that hold Duma seats and are cast by themselves and the state as opposition groups but regularly support Kremlin initiatives.

"The main problem that no one is safe from repressions, from a millionaire oligarch to the most humble citizen," he said. "They can come for anyone without even stating a reason, conduct a search, arrest you, and so on. There is no point in engaging in politics here."

And the government will keep behaving like this "because there is no resistance," Ivanov added. "You see, everything is calm. Everything is fine. The people are silent."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by Alina Pinchuk of RFE/RL's Russian Service. Current Time contributed to this report