FACED WITH mass demonstrations in Russian cities and a powerful international outcry, Russian President Vladimir Putin eased — slightly — his persecution of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The imprisoned and seriously ailing activist was transferred to a hospital last week and examined by a team of civilian doctors, prompting him to end a hunger strike that threatened to kill him. But Mr. Putin has not altered his aim of crushing Mr. Navalny’s movement, the most powerful he has faced during two decades in power. On the contrary: Mr. Putin’s regime is now moving to adopt repressive measures more sweeping and severe than anything seen in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
On Monday, a court in Moscow granted a prosecutor’s request to suspend activities by Mr. Navalny’s headquarters and nearly 40 regional offices across Russia, as well as their YouTube, Instagram and other social media sites. Its next step will likely be to designate the movement as “extremist,” placing it in the same category as al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. That would mean that hundreds of staff working in the offices — dozens of whom were arrested over the weekend — could be sentenced to prison terms of six to 10 years, while hundreds of thousands of people who have contributed money, retweeted videos, signed petitions or worked on local election campaigns would risk prison for further actions. As The Post’s Robyn Dixon reported, even selling refrigerator magnets or wearing T-shirts with Mr. Navalny’s slogan — “Russia will be happy” — could prompt prosecution.
The crackdown is not limited to Mr. Navalny. Authorities are also seeking to silence independent journalists, including those who work for U.S.-sponsored Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the independent website Meduza. Both have been required to publish extensive disclaimers labeling themselves as foreign agents with every news report and even blog posts. If they refuse to comply, as RFE/RL has, the result is mounting fines and potential prosecution.
There’s no doubt why Mr. Putin has resorted to these measures, because his prosecutor spelled them out in court. He cited Mr. Navalny’s corruption investigations, such as a report on a vast palace constructed for Mr. Putin that has gathered more than 116 million views on YouTube; mass demonstrations, which have brought hundreds of thousands of ordinary Russians to the streets in cities across the country; and the coordination of opposition candidates in elections, which has led to some embarrassing results for the ruling party in local votes. None of Mr. Navalny’s work has been violent or antidemocratic. On the contrary, his aim is to reverse Russia’s slide into autocracy under Mr. Putin.
But Mr. Putin cannot tolerate peaceful dissent; he fears it would lead to one of the “color revolutions” that have toppled dictators in Ukraine, Georgia and other former Soviet republics. His regime is founded on a massive looting of resources, by himself and a circle of cronies, which Mr. Navalny’s investigations have done much to expose, and thereby endanger. He tried killing Mr. Navalny last summer, dispatching secret police to smear his underwear with a banned chemical agent. Now, he seeks to intimidate Russians into abandoning their support for the movement by threatening them with prison sentences. Let’s hope the new tactic, like the poisoning, fails; if it does, the dictator will have few cards left to play.