Navalny’s first year in prison – Updated
As we approach the one-year anniversary of the arrest and politically motivated trial of Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, we look back at some of the most outlandish claims the Russian authorities and pro-Kremlin disinformation actors have leveled again him.
What is the message of the Navalny case to Russian society and international audiences?
The main narratives
The most prevalent pro-Kremlin disinformation narratives targeting Navalny after the attempt to assassinate him with the Novichok nerve agent focus on three topics related to Navalny – political activism, anti-corruption work, and the poisoning itself.
Claims in all three categories seek to portray the man not as a Russian oppositionist but rather as a bona fide rogue operative on the West’s payroll, or at least an unknowing, naïve pawn in foreign plots against Russia.
In most cases, this portrayal hinges on unfounded political links between the Navalny poisoning and unrelated events. Within two weeks of the 20 August 2020 incident (or “metabolic disorder,” as Russian propagandists prefer to call it), pro-Kremlin outlets churned out so many conspiracies that it became difficult to find a Western country that was not implicated in an anti-Russian plot.
The West, we were told, used the poisoning as a pretext to sanction Russia and stoke Russophobia, whereas the poisoning itself was an EU provocation. In Germany, the “deep state,” the Charite Clinic, and even Angela Merkel stood accused of trying to derail the gas pipeline Nord Stream 2, carry out a “special operation” against Moscow, and dissuade Putin from intervening in Belarus. Across the Atlantic, the Washington-NATO axis were also busy exploiting the incident to scrap the Russian pipeline, as well as to block the certification of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.
Does the disinfo campaign work?
Well, to some extent. According to a public opinion poll conducted by Russia’s respected Levada institute in late September 2020, 30 per cent of Russians blamed Navalny’s attempted murder on “Putin, the Kremlin, the government” or some other Russian state body, whereas only 8 per cent said it was the West’s doing. Less than three months later, the 30 per cent group had dropped to 15 per cent while the 8 per cent group more than doubled to 18 per cent. Additionally, a whopping 30 per cent of respondents now believed the whole episode had been staged.
Corruption: a toxic issue for whistleblowers
The same strategy was deployed to discredit Navalny’s latest anti-corruption investigation, the nearly two-hour long YouTube report about Vladimir Putin’s “palace” – a lavish, secret seaside fortress-like structure, complete with an underground hockey rink, a night club with a stage for pole dancing, golden toilet brushes, and a number of other necessities which reportedly cost Russian taxpayers a couple of billion dollars.
Russia’s highest-paid TV personalities wasted no time linking the YouTube report to Navalny’s supposed paymasters. According to Dmitry Kiselyev (included on an EU sanctions list), the script for Navalny’s expose was written in English by “NATO security services” and only then translated into Russian. Vladimir Soloviev, in turn, posited that the whole reason why the West mock-poisoned Navalny was to move him to Germany, where he would have all the time and facilities in the world to produce the film to “provoke mass disturbances and protests in Russia”. In fact, mass protests did break out. As the film documenting the Russian political elite’s enormous wealth and lavish lifestyle quickly gained several million views, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Moscow in January and February 2021, many waving golden toilet brushes in a mocking gesture against the gaudy excess and corruption of officials.
Without Putin there is no Russia
The phony trial which landed Navalny behind bars had nothing to do with his alleged efforts to shake the stability of Putin’s Russia, which in the Kremlin’s understanding is almost equal to the fall of Russia. The case against Navalny was based on a contrived technicality designed to convert his 2014 suspended embezzlement conviction into a real prison term.
Incidentally, that trial was also widely regarded as politically motivated: in 2017, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the conviction constituted a violation of Navalny’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, which Russia automatically signed when it joined the Council of Europe in 1996.
Smart Voting – remove the app
While the court charges may appear petty but easy to push through politicised courts, Navalny’s real weight was enhanced by his initiative of “smart voting”. This sent shivers through Putin’s party United Russia as this smart initiative to get out the vote in the 2021 Duma elections – grass roots and coordinated through a mobile phone app – risked pushing aside party apparatchiks. The Kremlin’s reaction: lean on tech companies hosting the app to make them remove or disable it on election day. Apple and Google obeyed. Smart voting got crippled.
A new Navalny channel
From his position in prison Navalny continues to have contact with his lawyers. He and the team around him intends to set up and anti-disinformation/ anti-propaganda channel in the near future.
“Communicating” with society through prison sentences
The additional charges of fueling unrest brought against Navalny while he s in prison illustrate the all-mighty nature of the Russian state vis-à-vis its citizens. Navalny’s imprisonment serves a dual purpose. It not only sidelines Russia’s leading opposition figure for the foreseeable future. By virtue of how thin the evidence against Navalny was, it also sent a clear signal to Russia’s already embattled civil society and its supporters: if someone needs to be put away, it shall be done even without evidence.
This message to Russian society carries echoes of the more than 10-year imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in the 2000s. At that time, the goal was to limit the political role of the growing business community, and the message was loud and clear: keep away from politics and power.
With business largely under control, Navalny’s imprisonment is about the role of political parties and civil society on the Russian political scene. But the message is the same: obey or land in prison.
The European Union continues to condemn the prosecution and the verdict against Mr Navalny. Read the full statement by HRVP Josep Borrell here.
Navalny and team on Russian list of extremists and terrorists
On 25 January, the Russian authorities decided to include Alexey Navalny and 11 persons from his organisation into the list of extremists and terrorists. It was an administrative decision without any court case. This is a further step to hamper the activities of Navalny’s anti-corruption organisation and to de facto cut ties with the Russian society. Donating funds or providing other support to an extremist organisation may be punished with up to eight years in prison.
Among the listed persons are now close advisors: Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov (both listed earlier), Lybov Sobol, Georgy Alburov and others. Persons on the list may face charges for establishing or leading an extremist or terrorist organisation which can give up to 10 years imprisonment. Being on the list also implies severe personal economic restrictions. The national list contains more than 11.000 persons.
The list of extremist or terrorist organisations is managed by the Federal Financial Monitoring Service.