By Anton Zverev, Darya Korsunskaya and Andrew Osborn
MOSCOW – The Kremlin and its loyalists have said they will maintain and in some cases intensify their tough approach to internal and external critics and organisations that they view as a threat to Russia’s stability.
In the run-up to a parliamentary election won by a large margin by the ruling United Russia against a backdrop of fraud allegations, the authorities neutralised the party’s critics outside parliament, using legal mechanisms to stop them from taking part in the ballot and targeting what they saw as hostile media and non-governmental organisations.
Allies of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who is serving two-and-a-half years in prison for parole violations he says are trumped up, had their homes raided, their freedom of movement restricted, or fled abroad after a court ruled their activities to be extremist in June.
In comments to Reuters, the Kremlin said the authorities would continue to take a tough line against Navalny’s allies despite the election being over. A senior lawmaker suggested a clamp-down on foreign non-governmental organisations would ramp up.
“The non-systemic opposition (Navalny’s allies) crossed a red line a while ago. What they were doing was using provocations and all methods to try to stir up social unrest,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
“Naturally, any authorities would adopt as tough a position as possible to that. The aim is to maintain stability in society. There is no place for lawlessness and we are ready to force people to obey the law. This is not connected to the Duma (parliament) elections. This is our line and it will continue to be our line,” he said.
Separately, Vasily Piskarev, head of a parliamentary committee which investigates foreign interference, is asking the Prosecutor General to ban the activities of more than 20 unnamed foreign non-government organisations.
He accuses them of unlawfully urging Facebook, Twitter and Google to ignore demands from the authorities to delete illegal content, a demand that Google and Apple complied with.
Analysts in Russia believe the idea is to ensure maximum stability in the run-up to the next presidential election in 2024, when Vladimir Putin may step down as president and suggest a hand-picked successor.
“This is the new normal. They’re not purging everyone before the elections only to then relent, no,” said one source close to the Kremlin who spoke of “new rules of the game”.
“All activity outside the system is now essentially extremism and we’re going to combat it. It’s like in China, but we have our own path,” said the source.
“They’ll wipe out everyone (politically), get used to it,” said another source in a state corporation familiar with the Kremlin’s thinking.
Ivan Zhdanov, a Navalny ally who operates outside Russia, said the authorities had long resorted to using illegal methods against opponents, including the attempted murder by poisoning of Navalny in 2020.
The Kremlin denies any role in Navalny’s health problems and says the poisoning was part of a Western-backed plot to try to discredit it.
Putin, who has been in power as president or prime minister since 1999, has not said whether he will run again in 2024, but has made clear he wants any power transition to be smooth when the time comes and untroubled by people he regards as Western-backed plotters.
“If the current level of repression is being driven by one specific factor, it’s probably the presidential election,” the Liberal Mission Foundation, a group of liberal-minded political analysts, said in a report.
“It (the repression) is forever until it ends,” the foundation said.
Pavel Grudinin, a Communist strawberry tycoon who came second to Putin in the last presidential election and whose attempt to run in the parliamentary vote was rejected by the electoral commission on what he says were politically-motivated grounds, said the political situation was grim.
“I think there’s a prevailing view among those who take decisions that the main thing is to create the image of an enemy, be it inside or outside the country, and then, on that basis, destroy any stirrings of activity,” Grudinin told Reuters.