MOSCOW (AP) – When the team of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny urged people to come out to their residential courtyards and shine their cellphone flashlights in a display of unity, many responded with jokes and skepticism. After two weekends of nationwide demonstrations, the new protest format looked to some like a retreat.
But not to Russian authorities, who moved vigorously to extinguish the illuminated protests planned for Sunday.
Officials accused Navalny’s allies of acting on NATO’s instructions. Kremlin-backed TV channels warned that flashlight rallies were part of major uprisings around the world. State news agencies cited unnamed sources saying a terrorist group was plotting attacks during unapproved mass protests.
The suppression attempts represent a change of tactics for the authorities who once tried to weaken Navalny’s influence by erasing him.
Kremlin-controlled TV channels used to largely ignore protests called by Navalny. Russian President Vladimir Putin has never mentioned his most prominent critic by name. State news agencies referred to the politician and anti-corruption investigator as “a blogger” in the rare stories they ran mentioning him.
“Navalny went from a person whose name is not allowed to be mentioned to the main subject of discussion” on state TV, Maria Pevchikh, head of investigations at Navalny’s Foundations for Fighting Corruption, said in a YouTube video Friday.
Pevchikh credited Navalny’s latest expose for the sudden surge in attention. His foundation’s two-hour-long video alleging that a lavish palace on Black Sea was built for Putin through elaborate corruption has been watched over 111 million times on YouTube since it was posted on Jan. 19.
The video went up two days after Navalny was arrested upon returning to Russia from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. The Russian government denies involvement and has said it has no evidence that Navalny was poisoned.
While the high-profile arrest and the subsequent expose were a double blow to authorities, political analyst and former Kremlin speech writer Abbas Gallyamov says that keeping Navalny and his activity off the airwaves to deprive him of additional publicity no longer makes sense.
“The fact that…
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