MOSCOW — The two closest associates of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny have been charged in a new criminal case by Russian authorities, the latest in a series of efforts to suffocate his already beleaguered team.
The Investigative Committee stated on Tuesday that Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov are being investigated for allegedly soliciting funding for extremist groups. The offense carries a potential jail sentence of up to eight years.
Navalny’s Foundation for Fighting Corruption and a network of his regional offices were declared extremist groups by a court in June. People affiliated with the organizations were prohibited from running for public office and faced significant jail sentences as a result of the classification.
To protect its supporters, the organization halted its crowdfunding activities soon before the court judgment. Navalny’s team, on the other hand, said last week that it will resume fundraising via encrypted transactions that bypass the Russian banking system and allow contributors to stay anonymous.
The fundraising website set up by Navalny’s team was soon shut down by Russian authorities. The Investigative Committee opened a criminal investigation, claiming that Volkov and Zhdanov wanted to continue the proscribed groups’ “illegal operations.”
In recent years, the two Navalny supporters have been the subject of several criminal investigations and have fled Russia.
On Tuesday, both responded cynically to the news. “Friends, we have a serious problem. I’ve lost track of how many criminal cases have been filed against me. I violated voting rights, dodged the army (draught), disobeyed court orders, concealed money, stole money, laundered money, and who knows what else?” Zhdanov expressed himself on Instagram.
“Politics in Russia in 2021 is when you’re at a conference, your phone starts to explode up with push notifications, inquiries, and calls, and you nonchalantly think: ‘Oh, probably a new criminal case,’” Volkov said on Facebook. Continue the discussion calmly, then check your mails to confirm if there is a new criminal case.”
Navalny, Putin’s most fervent political opponent, was detained in January after returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin – a claim that Russian officials deny.
Navalny was sentenced to 212 years in prison in February for breaching the conditions of a suspended sentence stemming from an embezzlement conviction in 2014, which he described as politically motivated.
His detention and imprisonment prompted a wave of huge protests that looked to represent a serious threat to the Kremlin. Authorities retaliated by arresting a large number of protestors and pursuing criminal charges against Navalny’s closest friends.
Many have subsequently fled Russia, while others have been placed under house arrest or have been subjected to various restrictions that preclude them from participating in political activities.
Russian authorities banned 50 websites maintained by Navalny’s team or followers for allegedly propagating extremist group propaganda after designating his foundation and regional offices as extremist.
The increased crackdown has been connected by Navalny’s supporters to Russia’s impending parliamentary election. The referendum on Sept. 19 is largely regarded as a crucial step in Putin’s efforts to solidify his authority ahead of the country’s presidential election in 2024.
Last year, Russia’s 68-year-old president, who has been in power for more than two decades, pushed through constitutional revisions that may allow him to stay in office until 2036.
Opposition sympathizers, independent media, and human rights advocates in Russia are under heightened government pressure as the election approaches. Russian authorities have labeled numerous independent media outlets and reporters as “foreign agents,” a designation that entails increased official surveillance and has significant negative implications that might damage the receivers’ reputations, and have raided famous investigative journalists.