‘Putin’s biggest fear is people rallying in the streets’

As Alexey Navalny languishes in jail, observers say a broad range of political opponents is being targeted.

Vladimir Putin has dominated Russian politics since assuming the country's presidency for the first time in 2000 [File: Sputnik/Sergey Guneev/Pool via Reuters]

In recent months, Violetta Grudina has been assaulted, fined and her apartment windows have been shot at from what appears to be a pump rifle.

Someone broke into her office, painted swastikas on the walls and damaged the furniture. Her home address was publicised in slanderous leaflets.

“A gang of non-humans luring our children to homosexuality and other indecencies has emerged in our calm northern city,” said the anonymous leaflet, which her neighbours received.

The “calm city” is Grudina’s Arctic hometown of Murmansk, a Barents Sea port near Norway, and the “non-humans” are her fellow activists who support jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny.

In four days in April, Grudina, who headed the Murmansk branch of Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation since 2017, was detained five times.

She said police have refused to investigate the assault and have so far done nothing about the other incidents.

At the time of publishing, the Murmansk police press service had not replied to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.

‘I am being filled with anger’

Grudina claims local authorities masterminded the intimidation campaign to prevent her from running against a pro-Kremlin candidate in the upcoming municipal elections.

But she is undeterred.

“All of this makes me laugh, all of this makes me angry. I am being filled with beneficial anger to keep on working,” the 31-year-old rights advocate told Al Jazeera.

She believes she is a victim of a new and aggressive wave of political purges instigated by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government, which has switched from pinpointed persecution of selected opponents to broader pressure on a growing number of critics.

“The construction of neo-Stalinism with Putin at the helm is being completed in Russia these days,” Gennady Gudkov, an exiled opposition leader and former lawmaker who was kicked out of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, told Al Jazeera.

“So far, there’s only one difference with Stalin’s regime – there is no massive imprisonment in gulags and there are no massive executions without trial. Everything else is copied after Stalin’s model.”

At the height of Stalin’s “Great Terror” of the late 1930s, millions were jailed and hundreds of thousands were executed, including the investigators and intelligence officers who conducted the first round of arrests and executions.

“There have not been such massive purges since Stalin’s times,” jailed activist Andrey Borovikov, a Navalny supporter in the northern city of Arkhangelsk, told Severreal.org, a project by the US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty network, in mid-April.

“The difference is that at the time, people were shot dead, and now they do jail time,” he was quoted as saying.

On Thursday, a court sentenced Borovikov to two and a half years in jail for “disseminating pornography.”

In 2014, he posted a link to an uncensored video by the German heavy metal band Rammstein that has not been banned in Russia.

‘Trying to frighten’ opponents

Other observers, however, disagree with the Stalinist comparison, saying that the new wave of arrests and adoption of repressive laws stems from a multi-faceted political shift.

It began last year after Putin sacked his longtime premier Dmitri Medvedev, a one-time president and a cautious liberal, replacing him with technocratic tax official Mikhail Mishustin.

“No, these are not mass repressions,” said Pavel Luzin, a Russia-based analyst for the Jamestown Foundation, a think-tank in Washington, DC.

“This is the entire mass of the state apparatus, hundreds and thousands of objectively unnecessary people, that are unable to produce anything, pressure the most outstanding opponents of the state system, trying to frighten others,”

Moscow has piled pressure on Navalny’s opposition movement while the Kremlin critic languishes in jail [File: Anton Vaganov/Reuters]

Putin has consistently weeded out any opposition to his rule, which is now in its third decade.

His government has adopted laws restricting media freedoms and complicated the registration of opposition parties. The Kremlin has branded Western-funded NGOs, including ones helping the victims of HIV/AIDS and domestic violence, as “foreign agents.”

Several prominent critics, including investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, rights advocate Natalya Estemirova and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, have been killed during Putin’s presidency, and hundreds of activists jailed.

But now, many more people face pressure and jail, and things are happening at breakneck speed.

Viktor Kudryavtsev, a 78-year-old physicist standing trial for alleged high treason, died of cancer on April 30, 14 months after being accused of passing information about Russia’s hypersonic weapons to “foreign intelligence services.”

Kudryavtsev’s death “exemplified how Russian intelligence services kill science in Russia. Literally,” his lawyer Ivan Pavlov, who called the charges against his client “absurd” and “fabricated,” wrote on Facebook.

Within hours, Pavlov himself was behind bars.

At 6am the next day, his Moscow hotel room was searched and he was detained for “disclosing the details of an ongoing investigation”, his firm Team 29 said.

At the same time, police searched Pavlov’s apartment in St Petersburg and broke into his colleague’s apartment, it said.

Dozens of prominent lawyers, writers and journalists signed an open letter decrying the detention and searches.

“The persecution of Ivan Pavlov, the confiscation of confidential attorney dossiers are an act of intimidation not just for Pavlov, but for the entire community of lawyers,” they wrote in the letter, which was published on Monday.

‘Impossible to work in such conditions’

Pavlov’s clients include Navalny’s foundation, which has 40 branches throughout Russia.

On Friday, Russia’s financial monitoring agency, Rosfinmonitoring, blacklisted it as an organisation involved in “terrorism and extremism.”

“Under the guise of liberal slogans, these organisations are busy forming conditions for destabilising the social and sociopolitical situation,” Moscow prosecutors said in a statement sent to a court that might, by May 17, ban Navalny’s network of regional offices.

Pro-Kremlin voices justify the pressure on Navalny’s activities and accuse the network of working with Western intelligence.

“This is the government’s response to the spiralling, aggressive attacks of Navalny’s bosses – the intelligence services of the United States, United Kingdom and Canada,” former lawmaker Sergey Markov told a Moscow radio station on April 26.

Putin has consistently weeded out opposition to his rule since assuming office [File: Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via Reuters]

If banned, Navalny’s foundation will be listed next to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS), and hundreds of its staffers may face up to 10 years in jail.

Thousands of supporters and donors may also face up to eight years in jail for “funding extremism”.

“We must be honest – it’s impossible to work in such conditions,” Navalny’s aide Leonid Volkov said in a YouTube video on Thursday, announcing the shutdown of the network’s 40 offices.

Are the apparent purges a sign of the Kremlin’s weakness?

Murmansk activist Grudina believes so, that there is a real fear of political competition and transparency.

“Vladimir Putin’s biggest fear is people rallying in the streets,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera