News Analysis: Moves Against Khodorkovsky's Open Russia Seen As Move To Control Elections

MOSCOW -- A decision by the Russian prosecutor-general to blacklist three foreign-registered organizations tied to former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky could restrict the opposition's options in looming elections.

The government on April 26 officially added the U.K.-registered Open Russia and Open Russia Civic Movement and the U.S.-based Institute of Modern Russia to the list of "undesirable" foreign organizations whose activities are banned in Russia.

The Russia-registered Open Russia organizations are not directly affected by the decision.

However, Maria Baronova, head of the Moscow branch of the Russian Open Russia group, reported on April 27 that law enforcement officials were nevertheless searching her group's offices.

The moves against the Khodorkovsky organizations, analysts say, could hamper Open Russia's election-related activities.

"Clearly this decision was made on the eve of the next election campaign, as well as with an eye toward all the subsequent elections," said Nikolai Mironov, head of the Moscow-based Center for Economic and Political Reform. "Open Russia has already begun work preparing for the September municipal elections in Moscow, and these elections are a stepping stone toward the Moscow mayoral election in 2018. Candidates will need the support of municipal deputies in order to get on the ballot."

Russian President Vladimir Putin is widely expected to seek a fourth term as president in an election slated for March 2018.

"This campaign can also be viewed as a preparatory stage for the upcoming federal elections -- the presidential election and the next round of Duma elections," Mironov said.

The government's decision to blacklist the foreign Khodorkovsky entities means that they will be unable to conduct training or consultations or provide organizational or financial support to any candidates or election-monitoring organizations. By restricting such opposition activities, Mironov argued, the government reduces its own need to abuse so-called administrative resources or to falsify results.

"All three organizations are registered outside of Russia," Moscow-based political consultant Vycheslav Smirnov said, "so they didn't really have legal grounds to operate in Russia. Most likely, we are talking about the financing of political processes or of concrete politicians by these organizations."

The prosecutor-general's move against the foreign Open Russia groups comes as the local Open Russia is organizing a national protest in Russia against corruption on April 29, aimed at keeping up momentum generated by large demonstrations organized by opposition politician Aleksei Navalny in late March.

Organizers of the April 29 protest say it will proceed as planned. The protests have been approved in 11 cities, although not in Moscow or St. Petersburg. One of the leading demands of the protest is a call for Putin, who has ruled Russia since 2000, not to seek another term.

Human rights lawyer Natalya Taubina told RFE/RL that the government's decision could complicate the work of the Russian Open Russia group, as activists could be detained under suspicion of "working for an undesirable organization," a potentially criminal offense.

"And then there would be the long and complicated process of proving that the Russian Open Society is not connected to the three organizations on the 'undesirable' list and that the protest call was made by individual people and not by the English or American organizations, and so on," Taubina said. "If you want to guess how judges might respond to this, just look at how they respond to the defense arguments in cases of organizations blacklisted as 'foreign agents' or in cases of people detained at demonstrations."

Aleksandr Solovyov, head of the Russian Open Russia group, said the blacklisting could have an impact on his organization despite the lack of a legal tie to the blacklisted groups.

"Unfortunately, considering that Russia has an almost complete absence of the rule of law," Solovyov told Current Time TV, a project of RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "In fact, the fact that it is possible to take illegal actions against any organization is exactly what the Open Russia movement is fighting against."