Last month, Alexander Korovainy shared an image on his Facebook page as part of the online “10-Year Challenge,” in which people post photos of themselves from a decade ago and today. Korovainy, who lives in Yeysk, in Russia’s Krasnodar region, made a tweak to the challenge, sharing an infographic comparing prices of household items such as a kilo of sugar in 2009 and 2019.
It sounds harmless enough. Except that the graphic was from MBKh Media, a news outlet founded by Mikhail Khordokovsky, a former oil tycoon, political prisoner and longstanding thorn in the Russian government’s side. And Korovainy, 34, is a member of Russia’s Yabloko opposition party and a deputy of Yeysk’s municipal council. He spent 10 days in jail in 2017 for taking part in a protest against corruption, and was fired from his teaching job on the same day. “I often ask uncomfortable questions” he told Human Rights Watch.
On March 14, Korovainy was summoned to the prosecutor’s office and informed that administrative charges had been filed against him under Russia’s 2015 law on “undesirable organizations,” which authorizes the prosecutor general to ban from the country any foreign or international organization that it perceives as harming Russia. The prosecutor alleged his post was related to Open Russia, an online movement that encourages transparency and independent information on Russia. In 2017, Russia’s prosecutor general designated Open Russia, a Khordokovsky initiative, an “undesirable organization.” Those who support Open Russia have also come under increasing pressure from the authorities.
The charges against Korovainy are consistent with the authorities’ wider crackdown on online expression. Prosecutions for speech offenses on social media have increased in Russia. That extends, as in Korovainy’s case, to posts the authorities deem merely connected to a foreign “undesirable organization”.
Korovainy, who faces a maximum 15,000 ruble fine (US$233) if convicted, told the prosecutor that MBKh Media, though blocked in Russia, is neither an undesirable organization nor the same as Open Russia. The prosecutor responded that MBKh media is a resource of Open Russia and “this is the same thing because MBKh stands for Mikhail Borisovich Khordokovsky.” Whether MBKh is or isn’t part of Open Russia is a distraction: neither should be banned from Russia. “I believe the case against me is intended to pressure me to stop my protest activities,” Korovainy said.
The authorities should stop exploiting vaguely worded laws to go after critics and drop the case against Korovainy.