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Russian media launches a new line of attack against Alexey Navalny

With the opposition leader behind bars, pro-government voices have shifted propaganda tactics

For years, Russian state media made an art form out of keeping Alexey Navalny’s name off the air. By resorting to innuendo, nicknames or just ignoring him entirely, pro-Kremlin voices had hit on a simple and effective way to muffle support for the opposition leader.

But now, with Navalny in failing health as he serves a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence for parole violations related to a 2014 fraud charge, pro-government voices have surged across traditional and social media channels.

“The government’s strategy has changed,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter turned political analyst in Moscow. “In the past, they just ignored him, but now they’ve gone to war with him.”

On April 1, the pro-Kremlin channels RT and NTV sent camera crews to Penal Colony Number 2, where Navalny is held, about 100 miles east of Moscow. Maria Butina, a Russian agent who was jailed and later deported from the United States in 2019, was the first person permitted to visit the jailed opposition leader. The report centered around allegations made by Navalny of forced sleep deprivation and other abuses at the penal colony posted on his social media accounts. His wife, Yulia Navalnaya, wrote on March 25 on Instagram that “these bastards” were even denying him painkillers for the severe back pain he’s had since his trial. The pain had escalated and he was losing sensation in his legs. On March 31, Navalny went on a hunger strike in protest of being denied basic medical care. 

During the broadcast, Butina described the conditions in which Navalny is being held as “exemplary.” She glossed over Navalny’s more serious accusation and instead asked him why he refused to tidy up his personal space, an accusation leveled against him by a cellmate earlier on camera. Navalny responded by calling Butina a “sad parasite.”

On April 7, Navalny’s lawyers reported that the numbness he was experiencing in his legs had now spread to his hands and that he had dropped nearly 30 pounds in weight since arriving at the colony. The day before his personal doctor Anastasia Vasilyeva had been detained by police at a demonstration outside the prison gates demanding that Navalny be given medical treatment. A CNN reporter was also held. Earlier that week Navalny wrote in a social media post — sent on his behalf by members of his team — that three of his fellow inmates were hospitalized with tuberculosis and that he was displaying symptoms.

Amnesty International’s Secretary-General Agnes Callamard addressed a letter to President Vladimir Putin on April 5 calling for Navalny to be released immediately. “There is a real prospect that Russia is subjecting him to a slow death,” read an Amnesty Twitter post. 

The details of Navalny’s imprisonment are now obsessively discussed nearly each evening on pro-government TV channels. During press briefings, government spokespeople have berated him for being a “hysterical sissy” about prison conditions.

This shift follows a rapid increase of awareness of Navalny’s work, even among those who support Putin. In the fall, following his recovery in a German hospital from an allegedly state-organized poisoning carried out in August, Navalny teamed up with the investigative journalism website Bellingcat, CNN and other international news outlets. His efforts went as far as calling up and duping a Russian agent into describing how Novichok nerve agent had been planted in his underwear. 

In January, when he returned to Moscow, Navalny was immediately arrested and put on trial. Two days later, his team published an investigation on YouTube into Putin’s personal wealth, which has now been viewed 115 million times. 

Vasily Gatov, a former senior executive at the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, describes the media’s latest approach to Navalny as total “character assassination.”

“They hit somewhat of a dead end by allowing Navalny to develop on his own for such a long time,” he said. “In general, there are few figures that Russians trust, so the new frame here is distrust, that Navalny is not ‘for Russia’ and is a person of dubious character.”

The most high-level example of the shift is Putin breaking a historical, near-total silence on his most prominent critic. In October, Navalny had accused the Russian president of personally ordering the Novichok attack. During an annual press conference in December, Putin described the allegations as pure “falsification.”

“Who needs to poison him?” he said. “If they’d wanted to, they probably would have finished the job.”

With Navalny sick, in jail and under attack across Russian media channels, the ruling United Russia party has begun to co-opt some of his campaign strategies.

Navalny was never considered a serious threat to Putin as a candidate, but his political activism through a “Smart Voting” strategy upset the Kremlin’s power balance. First deployed during Moscow city elections in 2019, then again in nationwide regional elections in 2020, the highly organized voting campaign set out to unseat candidates from the ruling United Russia party in contested electoral districts.

Next up are parliamentary elections this September. But with Navalny behind bars, United Russia has launched its own “Smart Voice” strategy. Leaked campaign documents show that the party is deploying a bot army across social platforms to confuse voters into casting their ballots for the ruling party. At the same time, dozens of Navalny allies involved in Smart Voting have been jailed, with police even targeting the relatives of activists.

“You can say Navalny brought the fight to enemy territory,” Gallyamov said. “The entire government propaganda system is now working and Navalny is the enemy of that system.”

In recent days, Putin has further tightened his grip on power, passing a law on April 5 that allows him to stay in office until 2036.

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