Kremlin accused of thwarting democracy with raids on activists

Open Democracy says police action is motivated by presidential election in March 2018

Political tensions rose in Russia on Thursday as police swooped on the homes of opposition activists linked to Open Russia, a pro-democracy group founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled former oil tycoon and arch-foe of President Vladimir Putin.

The raids came after Alexei Navalny, a prominent Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption crusader, called on his supporters to defy the authorities and stage nationwide protests on Saturday when Mr Putin celebrates his 65th birthday.

Police raided the homes of at least five Open Russia employees and associates in a series of raids that began at dawn on Thursday and lasted for up to six hours. Among those targeted were Timur Valeyev, the executive director of Open Russia; and Veronika Kutsylo, the editor of the organisation's website. Law enforcers also searched the flat of the parents of Alexander Solovyev, the chairman of Open Russia, confiscating mobile telephones and computers.

Russia's Investigative Committee said the raids were conducted in connection with a longstanding of case against the former owners and executives of Yukos, an oil corporation founded by Mr Khodorkovsky in the 1990s.


Living in exile

Mr Khodorkovsky was convicted in 2005 of fraud and tax evasion charges that were widely seen as a punishment for his anti-Kremlin political activities – and remained in jail for 10 years before finally receiving a pardon from Mr Putin. He now lives in exile in western Europe.

Yukos was seized by the Russian government and its lucrative assets parcelled out among state controlled oil companies. Former company shareholders have accused Russia of expropriation and demanded $50 billion of compensation in international courts.

Russia’s Investigative Committee suspects that Mr Khodorkovsky and other former Yukos executives have been funnelling funds to opposition groups from foreign accounts.

In a furious statement on Thursday, Mr Khodorkovsky slammed the Kremlin for "carrying out a campaign of severe intimidation against the opposition" in the run-up to the Russian presidential election in March 2018. "They are trying to keep their opponents' mouths shut," he wrote on Facebook.

Mr Putin has not yet revealed whether he will stand for re-election, although few observers doubt that he will win another term in office.

Crowds of supporters

Although the election campaign will not officially kick off until December, Mr Navalny, who declared his candidacy last year, has been drawing large crowds of supporters at rallies across Russia in recent weeks.

A court in Moscow sentenced Mr Navalny to 20 days in police detention this week for calling on citizens to attend an unauthorised public meeting.

From his prison cell the opposition leader has urged his supporters to attend nationwide demonstrations on October 7th to demand that the Kremlin organises a genuinely competitive election and allows Mr Navalny to stand for the presidency.

City authorities in Moscow and St Petersburg have refused to give permission for the rallies. Russian police have warned they will use face-recognition technology to identify protesters participating in the illegal meetings.

Stanislav Belkovsky, a Russian political commentator and television presenter, warned this week that the authorities would "react very negatively" if the demonstrations went ahead on Saturday. "It will be seen as going too far to protest on Putin's birthday," he told the radio station Echo Moskvy.