Russia Targets Dissenters—Right in Their Bank Accounts
07 Nov 2019

One morning in September, Andrei Yegorov woke to discover his bank account was frozen and in the red to the tune of 75 million rubles, almost $1.2 million.

Across Russia, opposition activists say hundreds of people have found that they, too, inexplicably are 75 million rubles in the hole—the same amount state investigators allege Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s organization had laundered for underworld crime lords.

Russia’s Investigative Committee opened an investigation into Mr. Navalny’s opposition group in August, a probe he calls a politically motivated attempt to destroy it.

For Mr. Yegorov, a longtime Navalny supporter, the bank-account move sent an unmistakable message: The cost of standing up to President Vladimir Putin is rising to a level few ordinary Russians can withstand.

“It can psychologically break a person knowing you have no access to your cash and you have a debt that you’ll never pay off,” Mr. Yegorov said.

Mr. Navalny, a 43-year-old lawyer who entered the public eye in 2012 when he organized street protests against Mr. Putin, has emerged as Russia’s most effective opposition leader in years. His Anti-Corruption Fund has become the closest thing Russia has to a nationwide opposition movement. His campaign has exposed alleged graft by top officials, including Mr. Putin’s top lieutenant, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who has dismissed the claims, calling them fabricated.

While Mr. Putin long ago quashed dissent within the country’s tightly controlled political system, Mr. Navalny and supporters such as Mr. Yegorov have become a growing irritant. Russian authorities have described his group as a tool of the U.S. establishment, intent on toppling Mr. Putin.

The Kremlin for years has used court cases to force independent-minded organizations into bankruptcy or submission, but the measures against Mr. Navalny and other opposition leaders, introduced quietly after the protests ended, have brought the Kremlin’s attempts to quash political activism to a new level.

Denis Volkov, a sociologist for independent pollster Levada Center, said Mr. Navalny’s success in organizing demonstrations and protest voting against the Kremlin has made his group a greater threat to the authorities.

“The authorities see they now have something to lose to the opposition, and so they’ve decided to shut it down,” he said.

Mr. Navalny’s followers and other opposition activists joined forces in Moscow over the summer to rally against what they called arbitrary and unlawful detentions of protesters, the biggest show of dissent against pro-Kremlin authorities in years. He also led efforts to oust pro-Putin city council members in a Moscow municipal vote this September.

The new measures aimed at Mr. Navalny’s group show the danger the Kremlin sees in political activism as Mr. Putin plans to maintain power for at least another five years before his term ends. Mr. Navalny’s followers are personally paying the price in the crackdown.

“I know what I’m facing in opposing the Kremlin, and my family members understand it, too,” Mr. Yegorov said.

Russian authorities for years have pressured Mr. Navalny’s support base and have targeted his anticorruption campaign in particular.

An earlier probe by state investigators accused his organization of laundering 75 million rubles in donations from Russian crime bosses. In October, the anticorruption group was also designated a foreign agent, meaning Mr. Navalny will have to advertise the designation on his website.

Mr. Navalny said the latest crackdown, which included several waves of raids on his offices and those of his supporters across Russia, is retribution for September’s city elections. After many opposition figures were banned from running, he called for supporters to vote for anyone but Mr. Putin’s candidates, a strategy he calls smart voting.

As a result, in the capital, candidates affiliated with the pro-government United Russia party lost around a third of their seats in the Moscow City Council, an embarrassing blow as ordinary Russians showed their unhappiness with falling incomes and higher household debt.

With the latest raids, “they’ve decided to destroy our network before we enlist several million people in a strategy of smart voting,” Mr. Navalny said. “What we’re facing now is intimidation and the destruction of our infrastructure.”

In addition to blocks on around 500 bank accounts held by Navalny supporters, according to the Anti-Corruption Fund, the organization has faced many court cases in connection with Moscow protests. Restaurant Armenia, on one of the city’s main thoroughfares, sued the group in October for nearly 250,000 rubles because of lost business. Mr. Navalny and other opposition leaders are facing other court cases as well, all of which amount to more than 32 million rubles in claims.

By Thomas Grove, The Wall Street Journal, 6 November 2019

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