A Russian opposition movement founded by exiled Kremlin critic and oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky says it plans to go ahead with protests against President Vladimir Putin in 32 cities this weekend, despite the fact that authorities have banned the movement and declared it illegal, and police have raided its Moscow offices.
The Open Russia movement’s spokeswoman, Maria Galitskaya, said the action will be held as planned.
“We insist we do not breach the law since we do not conduct either a meeting, or a demonstration or a picket," she said. "We are carrying letters to the president's reception (office), since someone does not hear us when we do that individually.”
The protests planned for Saturday afternoon will involve submitting letters of complaint to President Vladimir Putin about the situation in Russia.
“It is difficult to forecast what will be going on at the action,” said Galitskaya. “We hope we shall submit the letters and quietly leave. We do not plan any law violations from our side.”
"Open Russia" closed?
Russian authorities have not simply warned Open Russia not to conduct any activities, but have blacklisted the group.
The Russian prosecutor general’s office Wednesday declared Open Russia and two other groups founded by Khodorkovsky to be “undesirable” organizations. The three organizations are the U.K.-registered Open Russia, the U.S.-based Institute of Modern Russia, and the social movement Open Russia.
The "undesirable" designation bans them from operating inside Russia, with any violation punishable by fines and jail time.
Galitskaya spoke to VOA on Friday, just a day after police raided the group’s Moscow office.
“One started breaking open the doors of the rooms and desk drawers, though there was nothing illegitimate in the office,” she said. “It is difficult to talk about the real reasons of the search but we connect that with tomorrow's action and think that this is an effort at intimidation.”
The ban is the latest in a longstanding crackdown on civil society, said Amnesty International Russia Director Sergei Nikitin.
“These aren’t the first organizations banned in Russia as ‘undesirable’, but it’s the first time the authorities ban a civil society group that was founded by Russians and operates only in Russia," he said. "Since its creation, Open Russia has done a lot to support victims of human rights violations in Russia and denounce Russia’s deplorable human rights record, and now itself has fallen victim to the system.”
Khodorkovsky was Russia’s wealthiest man and close to the Kremlin before his outspoken criticism of corruption raised tensions between him and President Putin. He was sentenced to a decade in prison on fraud charges that were widely seen as politically motivated and the state stripped his Yukos oil company assets over alleged tax evasion and embezzlement.
Khodorkovsky was pardoned and released from prison in December 2013 and left Russia. In exile, he became even more critical of President Putin and supportive of Kremlin opponents through Open Russia.
A Moscow court on Friday rejected Open Russia’s complaint against city authorities, who had offered an alternative location for its protest, citing public renovation work.
The prosecutor’s office said the lack of agreement meant any protest would be unauthorized and anyone taking part could be arrested.
Russian authorities have been tightening controls as the country heads toward 2018 presidential elections.
The crackdown shows they plan to continue repressing political opposition to the Kremlin, says Andrei Kolesnikov, the Carnegie Moscow Center’s head of domestic politics and institutions.
“The authorities have got two lines of behavior in regard to the opposition - propaganda efforts and repressions," he said. "And they provide this line step by step, expressing their readiness to continue this line.”
Russia enacted the law against undesirable organizations two years ago and has used it to ban seven international groups, including The National Endowment for Democracy, the Open Society Foundation, and the International Republican Institute.
Russia has also tightened laws and regulations to discourage public protests in an effort to prevent displays of opposition to the Kremlin from getting out of control or attracting too much attention.
Opposition leader attacked, again
Also Thursday, Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny was attacked for a second time this year with a green antiseptic liquid known as zelyonka, which was thrown in his face outside his Moscow office. He was treated in hospital for damage to one eye.
In mid-March, Navalny was attacked with the green chemical in a Siberian city by a man who pretended to want to shake his hand.
Russian authorities are trying to shame and scare Navalny, says Kolesnikov.
“They all try to do something with him – to detain him, etc.," he said. "I think he is in great danger."
Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation organized Russia’s largest unauthorized mass protests in years on March 26. The demonstrations against alleged self-enrichment by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev were broken up by riot police, who arrested hundreds of protesters, many of them minors.
Navalny, who in 2012 led the biggest anti-Kremlin protests since Putin came to power, plans to run for president in 2018. Russia’s politicized courts seem intent on stopping him. In February, he was convicted, on flimsy evidence, of embezzlement. That conviction will disqualify him from running for office if not overturned.
Throwing the green-staining, noxious zelyonka at critics is an increasingly common tactic of Kremlin supporters.
This week, unknown assailants threw the antiseptic on investigative journalist Galina Sidorova in the city of Yoshkar-Ola. A day earlier, Russian blogger Ilya Varlamov was attacked with zelyonka, eggs and flour at Stavropol airport.
In late February, Putin critic and former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov was spattered with green paint at a memorial march for slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Nemtsov was shot in the back and killed two years ago on a bridge just meters from the Kremlin and Red Square.
On Friday, the Russian opposition political party Yabloko (Apple) said one of its campaigners, Natalia Fedorova, was “almost blinded” after a chemical substance was thrown in her eyes by unknown attackers. She was also hospitalized.