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Moscow Targets Social Media And COVID-19 Fears To Prevent Pro-Navalny Rallies

In Novosibirsk ahead of unauthorized January 23, 2021 demonstrations for opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's release from jail, a lone protester holds a sign that reads "Putin is afraid of Navalny."
In Novosibirsk ahead of unauthorized January 23, 2021 demonstrations for opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's release from jail, a lone protester holds a sign that reads "Putin is afraid of Navalny."

With talk of sanctions building against Russia for the government’s alleged role in the poisoning of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, the Kremlin has given no sign of backing down from attempts to block unauthorized national protests on January 23 against Navalny’s recent arrest.

These efforts now include the Investigative Committee, which oversees the country’s investigations, as well as the Interior Ministry, and communications regulator Roskomnadzor in what one Russian attorney deemed an unprecedented “cleanup” operation.

Late on January 22, the Investigative Committee announced that it had launched a criminal investigation into attempts on social media or the Internet to encourage underage Russians to attend the January 23 demonstrations – illegal events, it said, that could endanger participants’ health. Under Russia’s Criminal Code (Article 151.2), involving people in such events is punishable by up to 3 years in prison.

In a YouTube video, the Committee’s uniformed spokeswoman, Svyatlana Petrenko, attributed the decision to “verified” concerns by unnamed parents’ groups that the gatherings would spread COVID-19.

In conjunction with this case, the Interior Ministry has accused two leaders of Navalny’s movement – regional director Leonid Volkov (currently abroad) and Ivan Zhdanov, head of the activist’s Anti-Corruption Foundation – of “the organization of provocations and acts of violence” that would involve young people.

On Twitter, Zhdanov mocked the charges: “And they drank the fresh blood of babies! Aaaaa. Who’s making this up for them!” he asked in reference to Interior Ministry officials.

Over the past few days, from Vladivostok to Tyumen and on to Moscow, over a dozen Navalny activists, both office staff and volunteers, have been carted off to jail for urging the public to attend the unauthorized demonstrations against Navalny’s arrest.

"There’s never once been such a total sweep” of activists ahead of a protest, commented attorney Mikhail Biryukov, who specializes in legal aid for detainees. Previously, police would only warn prominent, individual political activists, he said.

Communications regulator Roskomnadzor’s pledge to fine social-media platforms from 800,000 rubles ($10,625) to 4 million rubles (over $5.3 million) for notices about the Navalny protest aimed at underage Russians marks another first, Biryukov added.

As of late on January 22, no such fines appeared to have been imposed. The detentions, however, have continued.

Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, an active Twitter fan, has received a 9-day prison sentence for encouraging Russians to attend the unauthorized rallies.

Georgy Alburov, who heads the investigations department at Navalny’s non-profit Anti-Corruption Foundation4., has received a 10-day sentence for the same charge.

Another prominent Foundation employee, attorney Lyubov Sobol, was detained on January 21 – allegedly for this same reason -- but has been released. Sobol told Current Time that she was denied a lawyer for over four hours and was never informed about the charges against her. On January 22, she was fined 250,000 rubles ($3,322) for urging attendance at the unauthorized pro-Navalny rallies.

In Moscow, the coordinator of Navalny’s office, Oleg Stepanov, stated on January 21 that police had turned off the power in his apartment -- presumably, to prevent digital communications during the protests.

Stepanov, now in an undisclosed location to avoid detention, asserted that such moves are pointless. “Even if they detain everybody, [Russians] won’t love Putin more,” he commented.

Asked whether President Putin’s administration had ordered law enforcement to crackdown on potential protest participants, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a January 22 briefing that no such orders are needed. Certain “provocateurs” are calling for people to attend the Moscow rally, he said, and law enforcement will take “the corresponding measures in regard to these provocateurs.”

But sociologist Lev Gudkov of the independent Levada Center doubts that the Navalny protest in Moscow will draw huge crowds. Both concerns about COVID-19 mass-spreader events and fear of the police likely will mean no more than several thousand participants, he predicted.

Though Navalny’s latest anti-corruption investigation into a luxurious Black Sea estate supposedly owned by President Vladimir Putin and financed by taxpayers has sparked “huge interest,” that interest does not necessarily mean most ordinary Russians will risk prison or clashes with police in the politician’s defense, Gudkov explained.

“Threats scare them,” Gudkov said. “Over the past two to three years, we’ve identified a sharp increase in fear of state violence, of the arbitrariness of the authorities, of harsher repressions. And this is a very important thing. “

(Current Time will provide a live broadcast on the demonstrations throughout Russia on January 23, beginning at 12:00 p.m., Moscow time.)

The latest stage in Navalny’s decades-long conflict with President Vladimir Putin began on January 17, when the 44-year-old politician returned to Moscow after nearly five months in Germany recuperating from a suspected poisoning with the nerve agent Novichok in August 2020.

He was detained upon arrival in Sheremetyevo airport for allegedly having violated the terms of an expired 3 ½-year conditional sentence for contract violations.

On January 18, a hastily assembled court in a police station ruled to place Navalny under arrest until February 15, pending a trial on these supposed violations. Another case, on charges of defrauding donors the ruble-equivalent of $4.84 million, does not yet have a trial date.

Navalny supporters and rights activists see these measures as payback for his investigations, including with international media, that linked Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), a descendant of the KGB, to the poisoning attack. In a December 2020 videoed phone call, an apparent FSB officer acknowledged to Navalny the agency’s role in the attack.

Citing two unidentified sources “close to the leadership,” Bloomberg reported on January 22 that the Kremlin wants the activist to receive a prison sentence of “several years or more.” Together, the maximum prison sentences for the two criminal cases against Navalny total 13 ½ years.

Yet even with Navalny now in prison, the investigations have continued. Two days after his incarceration, his YouTube channel released a subtitled, detailed report, including drone footage, of a palatial Black Sea estate the activist claims was constructed for Putin at taxpayers’ expense. Peskov dismissed the report as "lies."

Further allegations against the FSB also appear in the offing. Bellingcat, the digital investigative journalism site that earlier collaborated with Navalny on an investigation into his poisoning, plans to release a report “within the next two to three days” that will allege that an FSB hit squad previously killed at least three Russians with no ties to politics, Bellingcat’s lead Russia investigator, Christo Grozev, stated on Current Time’s January 22 Morning newscast.

Those victims include one journalist, he claimed. Grozev declined to identify the journalist, but said that the individual had been a blogger.

“[W]e see that the choice of people is in no way connected to political enemies [of the Putin administration], but to anyone who’s undesirable to the Kremlin,” he commented.

Charging that Navalny collaborates with Western intelligence to get his information, the Kremlin has denied categorically any connection to his poisoning. It has cited negative lab tests conducted in Russia to reject German findings that the politician was poisoned with the Russia-sourced nerve agent Novichok. No criminal investigation has been opened into the case.

Already, though, Russia is facing potential repercussions for the arrest of Navalny and lack of an investigation into his poisoning.

On January 21, the European Parliament adopted a non-binding resolution that demanded that the European Union immediately stop work on the nearly completed Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that will deliver 55 billion cubic meters of natural gas line from Russia to Germany.

In its 581-50 vote, the European Parliament also called for further sanctions against those “legal entities and individuals” tied to Navalny’s January 17 detention and subsequent arrest.

The resolution also broadly urges an entrance ban and asset freeze for “Russian oligarchs linked to the regime, members of President Putin’s inner circle and Russian media propagandists.” These individuals’ family members would also be affected.

These measures would build on sanctions already implemented by the EU and United Kingdom in October 2020.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, has not yet stated when it will decide what further action to take on the European Parliament’s decision.

The United States has condemned Russia’s treatment of Navalny and urged his release, but it has imposed no Navalny-specific sanctions to date.

Russia has rejected any such sanctions as outside interference in a domestic matter and threatened its own restrictions. Some EU officials already have been barred from entering the country.

A “strategic debate” about relations between the EU and Russia will take place in March, Charles Michel, president of the European Council, an assembly of the EU’s 27 heads of state, told President Putin in a January 22 phone call, according to the European Council.

Like others before him, President Michel called for the prompt release of Navalny and a transparent investigation into the “assassination attempt on him …”

The Kremlin did not detail President Putin’s response.

--With additional reporting from, Kommersant, and TASS