Head shaven and prison attire hanging loosely from his skeletal body, Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, appeared in court last week to appeal his conviction, wasting no time before rebuking Putin and his hold on power. “Your naked, thieving king wants to continue to rule until the end,” he declared through a blurry prison broadcast.
Navalny’s appeal was expectedly denied, but his accusation—that Putin will do anything to enshrine his power—has proven all too true.
In another Moscow court last week, a judge granted the Russian government’s request to suspend the activities of Navalny’s entire political organization, including his anti-corruption network that has exposed instances of theft and money-laundering by Putin and his regime. Shortly thereafter, the government added Navalny’s movement to a list of extremist organizations, putting them in the same category as groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda.
These rulings will shut down nearly 40 regional offices, as well as all social media sites belonging to the opposition. By declaring his movement “extremist,” the government now has the power to arrest and jail Navalny’s entire staff, and to punish all shows of support for Navalny’s movement. Everything from donating money, to retweeting a link to Navalny’s website, to just wearing a t-shirt with Navalny’s slogan, could now land his supporters in jail, charged with inciting or abetting extremism.
Recognizing that merely jailing Navalny is not enough to stop his movement, the regime has imposed the kind of repressive measures not seen since the darkest days of the Soviet Union.
What does Russia’s extremism law mean for democracy?
Authoritarian governments the world over follow the same playbook in criminalizing opposition under the guise of “national security” or “combatting hate.” Under a veneer of democracy and good intentions, dictators create vaguely-worded laws that can be weaponized to imprison anyone they please. There is always the shield of plausible deniability; that wasn’t a human rights defender I just jailed, they argue, but rather a terrorist. (Notably, in America, such ambiguous laws would likely be unconstitutional under the vagueness doctrine. The Due Process clauses of the US Constitution require that people have notice of “what is punishable and what is not.”)
In Venezuela, a writer that dared post an image criticizing the Venezuelan Attorney General was accused of “inciting hatred” and swiftly imprisoned. In Hong Kong, peaceful young protesters were arrested on charges of “terrorism” for challenging the Chinese regime.
In Russia, it may not be long before ordinary people must look behind their shoulder every time they speak, for fear that their comments may be perceived as “extremist.” Already, the Kremlin has used the same extremism law to criminalize people’s sincerely-held beliefs. Since 2017, more than 400 Jehova’s Witnesses have been charged with “extremism,” and dozens of them are serving long sentences.
Years ago, in the Soviet Union, the KGB would arrest and jail anyone found to be committing “ideological subversion”: their term for ideas that challenged communist dogma. After the establishment of a Russian democracy, many Russians believed the days of secret police were finally behind them. Now, Putin is using the exact same tactics as his authoritarian peers to maintain his iron grip on power, while the light of freedom in Russia grows dimmer by the day.