Russian authorities have arrested a prominent opposition activist after he was hauled off a flight, and raided the homes of several others.
Andrei Pivovarov, the head of the Open Russia movement, was pulled off a Warsaw-bound plane at St Petersburg’s airport just before takeoff late on Monday.
Pivovarov’s team said police questioned him, searched his apartment and opened a criminal case against him on Tuesday for allegedly violating Russia’s legislation on “undesirable organisations”.
“These situations show us that they are afraid of us, and we are a majority,” Pivovarov’s Twitter account said.
The Krasnodar branch of the Investigative Committee, which probes major cases, said in a statement that Pivovarov had in August 2020 published materials in support of an “undesirable organisation”.
The statement also accused the activist of attempting to flee from investigators on Monday.
Pivovarov said he was going on vacation when he was arrested.
Pivovarov’s removal from the plane came after authorities in Belarus on May 23 diverted a Ryanair flight heading from Greece to Lithuania to the capital, Minsk, and arrested a journalist on board.
Polish airline LOT, which operated Pivovarov’s flight, said the plane was taxiing when Russian air traffic control ordered the crew to return to the parking position.
“The pilot had to comply with this order as he was under Russian jurisdiction,” Polish news agency PAP quoted the company as saying.
Poland said it was looking into the issue.
“This is an unusual action because if the Russians wanted to detain this person they could have done so before boarding. The question is why it was done exactly at that moment,” Deputy Foreign Minister Piotr Wawrzyk told state broadcaster TVP.
“The standards of the civilised world do not apply there.”
Open Russia tagged as ‘undesirable’
Open Russia was financed by tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who moved to London after spending 10 years in prison in Russia on charges viewed by some as political revenge for challenging President Vladimir Putin’s rule.
Russia declared the group “undesirable” in 2017, effectively banning its activities.
Its allies in Russia continued their activism under a separate legal entity to try to protect themselves from prosecution.
But the group folded its activities in Russia last week to prevent its supporters from facing criminal prosecution as parliament prepares to adopt legislation that would increase criminal liability for anyone who cooperates with “undesirable organisations”.
Russia says the law is needed to protect its national security from external interference.
Also on Tuesday, police raided a country home of opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov, a former lawmaker who has aspired to run for parliament in September.
At least two of his associates had their homes searched.
“I don’t know the formal reason for this,” Gudkov wrote on the Telegram social media platform. “But the real (reason) is clear.”
Gudkov’s father Gennady, also critical of the Kremlin, described the searches as “a special operation to eliminate Gudkov’s team”.
Authorities were yet to comment on the operation Gudkov said was under way.
Crackdown on dissent
The moves came as Russia appears to be cracking down on political opposition ahead of September’s parliamentary election.
Putin’s United Russia party has lost support recently as economic woes weigh.
The president’s leading political foe, Alexey Navalny, was arrested in January upon his return from Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin – accusations that Russian officials reject.
He is serving a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence for violating terms of a suspended sentence stemming from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that he denounces as politically motivated.
With Navalny in prison, prosecutors have asked a Moscow court to designate Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) and his network of regional offices as “extremist” groups.
In a parallel move, a bill approved by the lower house of the Russian parliament bars members, donors and supporters of “extremist” groups from seeking public office – a measure that would keep Navalny’s associates from running for parliament in September.