26 April 2021
By Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora international human rights group
The legal action taken by the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office to recognise Aleksei Navalny’s organisations as extremist has surprised not only the members of his team and the general public but also the experts, because Aleksei Navalny’s white-collar, technologically advanced and widely supported opposition movement could not be further removed from extremist organisations, which, although perceived differently by the public at different times, are generally regarded as marginalised and violent semi-underground groups.
In recent years, the image of an extremist has changed dramatically, not only in people’s perceptions but in legal and law enforcement practices as well, and these changes fit in with the broad context of changes taking place in the country.
Criminal liability for inciting hatred on the grounds of ethnicity, religion and race (Article 282) was provided for by the very first version of the Russian Criminal Code that came into force in 1997, although the article was not applied in the first few years. Its main purpose was to protect society’s most vulnerable and discriminated groups. Traditional democracies have anti-discrimination laws that protect the vulnerable from unequal treatment. At its most extreme, this discrimination, which is usually associated with violence or the threat of it, is a criminal offence and covered by criminal law, but it has developed differently in Russia.
Vladimir Putin was in charge of the country in the wake of the second Chechen campaign, and he successfully fought against militants in Dagestan.
At that time, the image of the domestic enemy was closely associated with an armed and bearded Islamic radical, and the new law on extremist activities adopted in 2002 was specifically intended to create a barrier to religious and ethnic hatred. Even then, its wording alarmed specialists (experts at the Sova Centre, for example, which was established in the same year).
In those days, extremism was not much different from terrorism in the public consciousness. Also in 2002, the year that the law on extremism was passed, there was a major terrorist attack at the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow, and the Beslan school siege took place two years later. People were alarmed and frightened, and the security force’s decisive actions against domestic enemies seemed justified.
In 2003, the Russian Supreme Court banned the activities of organisations for the first time. This included the Hizb ut-Tahrir group and the Taliban. The court labelled them as terrorist groups, however, the supporters were then tried for many years under the article “participation in the activities of an extremist organisation” – once again confirming the absence of a clear distinction between the terms “terrorist” and “extremist” (later a separate article of the Criminal Code was adopted for members of a terrorist organisation). The hearings of the Supreme Court were concluded with only representatives of the Prosecutor General’s Office and the FSB taking part, and the Supreme Court’s ruling was not published at that time – only a couple of years later staff of Memorial Human Rights Centre managed to copy it from one of the criminal cases on participation in the activities of an extremist organisation. By that time, they had begun to slowly creep across the country (today it is openly published on the website of the National Anti-Terrorism Committee). This secrecy in the Supreme Court’s decision-making – decisions that create risks of prosecution and imprisonment – has drawn criticism from human rights defenders. None of them has ever shared the views of Hizb ut-Tahrir, but the issue is an issue of equality of all before the court, in the procedure and fairness of the court decision, because what is happening today with religious fanatics, in turn, creates a dangerous precedent whereby this the same approach could be applied to anyone, and that is what ultimately happened. That is why the lawyer Kirill Koroteevof (from ‘Memorial’) represented the interests of the members of “Hizb ut-Tahrir” at the European Court of Human Rights. However, he refused to see a violation of the Convention, since the movement itself professes anti-liberal values.
Interestingly, the prohibition of the Taliban has not stopped representatives of the Russian government from periodically meeting and negotiating with its representatives.
Russian nationalists then became the main extremist group in Russia.
The siloviki began to persecute the National Bolsheviks. In 2004, the National Bolshevik Party (NBP) was recognised as an extremist organisation. The same happened to the National Socialist Society (NSS) and numerous neo-Nazi groups. The operatives of the Organised Crime Control Department took the lead in fighting against them, and in 2008, on the basis of that Department, Centres for Countering Extremism were created. Dozens of National Bolsheviks were prosecuted for participating in NBP activities. The symbol of the National Bolsheviks – a black hammer and sickle, on a white background with a red frame – was recognised as extremist in nature and is illegal to display. Article 282 of the Criminal Code was then named the “Russian article” as a result of the defeat of the right-wing movements.
The growing campaign against extremism reached its peak in the mid 2010s. Almost every federal agency was required to report on the success of its fight against extremism: the Federal Customs Service on the seizure of extremist literature at the border; the prosecutor’s office on additions to the list of extremist materials; the Centres for Countering Extremism on the number of criminal cases initiated under the relevant legislation. This pipeline became an end in itself: the internal enemies were not extremist bombers, but foreign agents, supporters of undesirable organisations, followers of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, now released from jail, and activists for Navalny’s team, whose popularity and influence was rapidly growing.
By 2018, a typical extremist already looked very different than they had ten years before: a classic example is Maria Motuznaya, a student at the Altai State Culture Institute, who was prosecuted for posting several images on her page on the social network VKontakte. The Motuznaya case launched a powerful public campaign that led to the decriminalisation of primary extremism, ie, its transition from a criminal offence to an administrative offence. This was accompanied by a sharp decline in the role and influence of the “E” centres.
Extremism has started to go out of fashion.
At the same time, in order to somehow generate work for the army of anti-extremism fighters, Russia’s Supreme Court in one fell legal swoop recognised hundreds of branches of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious movement as extremist. According to the most conservative estimates, there are more than 150,000 followers of this Christian movement living in Russia. Hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been prosecuted, and dozens are in prison and pre-trial detention. And so by the 2020s, the image of an extremist started to look like a young person in a white shirt, with a Bible under their arm.
Neither Aleksei Navalny himself, nor his supporters, nor his organisations, have ever been charged with offences under anti-extremism law. There were no prerequisites for this. Extremism, according to the relevant federal legislation, involves violence or the incitement of violence. Navalny’s team has always emphasised the exclusively peaceful nature of any street protests, traditionally acting as adherents of legal procedures. Navalny and his closest colleagues Ivan Zhdanov and Liubov Sobol are lawyers by education and in terms of their worldview.
So over two decades, extremism has turned from a synonym for terrorism into a synonym for political opposition.
Designating Navalny, his colleagues and supporters as extremists has two simple and obvious goals. The first is an attempt to marginalise Russia’s leading opposition movement in the eyes of citizens. The second, and most important reason, is that over almost 20 years, Russia has formed and perfected a mechanism for the prosecution of extremists. All the necessary manuals, instructions, and established investigative and judicial practices are in place. Each agency knows what it needs to do: the police, the prosecutor’s office, the media regulator, the Ministry of Justice, the courts, the banks — their roles have long been assigned and repeatedly rehearsed. As soon as a court, in a closed session due to state secrecy, makes a decision designating Navalny’s structures as extremist (according to the law, the ruling takes immediate effect), all parts of this well-established, intricate and copiously-oiled mechanism will begin to grind down the system that Navalny has been building for the past ten years.