Russian authorities have added imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny and some of his top allies to the country’s registry of terrorists and extremists, the latest move in a multi-pronged crackdown on opposition supporters, independent media and human rights activists.
Navalny, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critic, and eight of his allies — including top aides Lyubov Sobol and Georgy Alburov — were on Tuesday added to the registry by Russia’s Federal Financial Monitoring Service. The law requires that the bank accounts of those on the list be frozen.
The move comes just a over a year after Navalny’s arrest, which triggered a wave of the biggest mass protests across the country in years. The politician was detained upon his return from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning he blamed on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have denied any involvement.
Navalny was ordered to serve 2 1/2 years in prison for violating the terms of a suspended sentence stemming from a 2014 fraud conviction. In the following months, Navalny’s brother Oleg and many of his top allies also faced criminal charges, and the authorities outlawed his Foundation for Fighting Corruption and a sprawling network of regional offices as extremist, paralyzing their operations.
Russian authorities have also ratcheted up pressure on independent media and human rights groups in recent months. Dozens have been labeled as foreign agents — a designation that implies additional government scrutiny and strong pejorative connotations that discredit the recipient.
Some were declared “undesirable” — a label that outlaws organizations in Russia — or were accused of links to “undesirable” groups, and several were forced to shut down or disband to prevent further prosecution.
The authorities on Tuesday also petitioned the court to have Oleg Navalny serve his one-year suspended sentence in prison. Last year Oleg, together with his brother’s top allies, was convicted of violating coronavirus regulations over the protests in support of the politician, and handed a one-year suspended sentence.
Previously Oleg was convicted of fraud alongside his brother in 2014, but while Alexei received a suspended sentence, Oleg was ordered to serve 3 1/2 years in prison. He was released in June 2018.
The crackdown on Alexei Navalny and other dissenting voices in Russia has elicited outrage in the West.
On Tuesday, EU foreign affairs spokesman Peter Stano reiterated that “this is not acceptable, that we see this as a continued repression against the critical voices in Russian society.”
The U.S. State Department called the designation of Navalny’s group “troubling” and a “new low” in the government’s moves against opposition figures.
“Russian authorities already have effectively criminalized one of the country’s remaining independent political movements with their earlier designation of Navalny-affiliated organizations as ‘extremists,’” department spokesman Ned Price told reporters. “This latest designation represents a new low in Russia’s continuing crackdown on independent civil society.”
Lyubov Sobol, who had left the country after standing two trials on criminal charges last year, told The Associated Press on Tuesday she believed the decision to add Navalny, herself and other allies to the registry of terrorists and extremists was made in the Kremlin.
“There’s absolutely no doubt that the decision regarding myself, Navalny and my closest associates and colleagues was made in the Kremlin with personal contribution by Vladimir Putin. I think he has all matters involving our team under a special control, and it’s not a decision made by lower-ranked officials,” Sobol said.
She said the move was likely aimed at scaring ordinary Russians and vowed that Navalny’s team, key members of which have left Russia, will continue their work.
Allies on both sides of the Atlantic also considered the SWIFT option in 2014, when Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea and backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. Russia declared then that kicking it out of SWIFT would be equivalent to a declaration of war. The allies — criticized ever after for responding too weakly to Russia’s 2014 aggression — shelved the idea.
Russia since then has tried to develop its own financial transfer system, with limited success.
The U.S. has succeeded before in persuading the SWIFT system to kick out a country — Iran, over its nuclear program.
But kicking Russia out of SWIFT would also hurt other economies, including those of the U.S. and key ally Germany. U.S. lawmakers said last week the Biden administration is still analyzing how bad that impact would be. Annalena Baerbock, the foreign minister for Germany, asked by reporters about the proposed Russian SWIFT ban, seemed to express doubts.
“The toughest stick won’t always ultimately be the most intelligent sword,” Baerbock said.
The United States already holds one of the most powerful financial weapons to wield against Putin if he invades Ukraine — blocking Russia from access to the U.S. dollar.
Dollars still dominate in financial transactions around the world, with trillions of dollars in play daily.