Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday, 30 August 2020


 Trolls, tracking and films: How Putin’s Russia obsessively hounded opposition leader Navalny
By Robyn Dixon
August 29 at 8:00 pm AET

Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny at a rally in Moscow on Feb. 29.  (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)
MOSCOW — When the order came from the Kremlin for films to smear opposition leader Alexei Navalny — President Vladimir Putin’s strongest critic — the team at pro-government REN TV didn’t have to work very hard.
The outline came from the Kremlin, said one team member, and most of the video and data were from the secret surveillance cameras of the FSB, the main successor to the Soviet KGB.
“We got all the information from the special services,” said Dmitry Belousov, the scriptwriter on “Liberals Paid In Black Cash,” a 2017 anti-Navalny film. “They put the information on our server and we had access.”
It was one attack on Navalny among many over the past decade, as he has been watched, harassed, jailed, intimidated and trolled on the Internet by Russian authorities. Navalny is now comatose in a Berlin hospital after falling ill on a Russian domestic flight from what German doctors say was poisoning.
Other dissidents and activists have been targeted in attacks, including poisoning linked to Russian agents by Western intelligence. But Navalny’s stature — well known in the West, fearless and financially independent due to donations — made his suspected poisoning a terrifying message on multiple levels.
[What are the chemicals German doctors say were used against Navalny?]]
To his supporters, it was the culmination of years of Kremlin pressure and plots against him.  It also brought home the personal risk faced by government foes, independent journalists and activists, and the grinding daily burden: constant surveillance, exhausting harassment by police, house searches, detention, draining lawsuits and disinformation.

Police officers detain Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow on July 10, 2013.  (Evgeny Feldman/AP)
Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, called the allegations of a targeted attack against Navalny “empty talk.” Prosecutors declined to investigate.
The crackdowns on journalists and political activists have intensified since constitutional changes approved last month that could allow Putin to remain in power for up to 16 more years.
Alexei Navalny’s decade of tensions with Kremlin 2011: Alexei Navalny leads protests over disputed parliamentary elections and was arrested with hundreds of others, serving 15 days in prison. Navalny’s arrest made him Russia’s most visible opposition figure. After his release, he addressed a Dec. 24 rally of more than 60,000 people, calling Putin’s United Russia party a network of “crooks and thieves.”  2012: Navalny is charged with embezzlement, allegations he said were politically motivated. The following year, he was convicted and given a suspended sentence while his brother Oleg was sentenced to three and a half years. 2013: Navalny launches a YouTube channel, Navalny Live, which has garnered nearly 800 million views and has around 4 million subscribers. In June, he ran in Moscow mayoral elections, coming in second and emerging as a major opposition force with more than 27 percent of the vote. December 2016: Navalny announces his intention to run for president in the March 2018 election, but denied the right to run for office because of the embezzlement conviction. March 2017: Navalny releases video “He’s not Dimon to you,” about the luxurious homes, yachts and vineyards of then Russian prime minister and former president Dmitry Medvedev. The video, a reference to Medvedev’s nickname Dimon, sparked anti-corruption rallies in 82 cities. April 2017: Navalny is splashed with a green caustic substance, which partly damaged his right eye. He appeared on his YouTube channel in his program “Navalny at 20:18,” stained with green several hours later. September 2018: Navalny spearheads a “smart vote” campaign, seeking to unite opposition votes behind candidates mostly likely to defeat Putin’s governing party. It was a success with 20 of 45 Moscow legislature seats going to the opposition. July 2019: Navalny suffers a severe allergic reaction with a swollen, itchy face while serving a 30-day sentence for calling an unsanctioned protest. Later he wrote that he may have been poisoned. Aug. 20. 2020: Navalny falls seriously ill on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow, causing the pilot to divert to Omsk. German doctors concluded he was poisoned with a toxic nerve agent.
“We can’t even throw our own trash in the backyard without being watched,” said Nadya Tolokonnikova, a Putin critic from the political activist punk group Pussy Riot and co-founder of independent news outlet Mediazona, another Kremlin target.
Police last week threatened new criminal charges against her over protests last summer, which could mean more jail time. She served almost two years in jail over a 2012 protest that involved a punk performance in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral.
“We have the whole of the state organs against us,” she said.
‘They know everything’
Navalny has been in the Kremlin’s crosshairs for years, particularly after he launched his Anti Corruption Foundation in 2011 and YouTube channel in 2013, publishing exposés of corruption and excess by Russia’s elite. It has nearly 4 million subscribers and has close to 800 million views.
In 2017, Kremlin spokesman Peskov said Putin’s disdain for Navalny ran so deep that he avoided even saying his name.
That year, Kremlin officials met to look at new tactics against Navalny, said Mikhail Rubin, deputy editor at independent investigative online media Proyekt.

Alexei Navalny’s wife Yulia, background, arrives at the Charité hospital in Berlin on Aug. 24.  (Kay Nietfeld/AP)
Apart from surveillance and legal harassment, they deployed a torrent of propaganda including the anti-Navalny film — portraying him as a puppet paid by foreigners, repeatedly showing heaps of mounting cash and the words — almost like a slogan — “Where does the money come from?”
 The scriptwriter Belousov said his editor, Alexei Malkov, met with Kremlin and FSB officials to shape the film. Belousov said he was told by Malkov not to depart from the official script — for this film and other pro-Kremlin films.
Malkov would boast about his day-to-day access and connections in the Kremlin and FSB, Belousov said.
“He was proud because he had all this top secret information and he had access to all these guys.” Malkov did not respond to a request for comment.
The FSB kept the material coming. Belousov said it would send secret surveillance material, always at the last minute.
[Why is poison the weapon of choice in Putin’s Russia?]]
“Mostly it was footage from CCTV or tapes or recordings, footage from cameras, bank accounts, various bank data and documents,” he said. “So those were the files that we used in our films.”
There were also intercepted emails and Telegram chats.
“I saw that the Kremlin really takes him seriously because of the huge piles of information they collected,” he added.
“They know everything that he does, what cars he drives, what hotels he stays at, who gives him money. And there is footage of all his meetings, everything,” he continued. “The information that was provided was overwhelming in terms of its volume.”

Yulia treats husband Alexei Navalny after unknown attackers doused him with green antiseptic outside a conference venue in Moscow in 2017.  (Evgeny Feldman/AP)
A statement from REN TV rejected Belousov’s account. “We deny this information,” it said. “This information does not correspond with reality.”
Belousov was no stranger to the media workings of the Kremlin.
He did work in 2011 for pro-Kremlin television NTV, took a break, then landed a job in 2017 that included work on a three-part series to discredit Putin’s opponents leading into municipal elections for REN, owned by financier Yury Kovalchuk, who is described by U.S. officials as Putin’s personal banker.
Still, Belousov was shocked by the increased political surveillance by 2017.
“There was a huge difference between 2011 and 2017 because now the FSB provides materials as if they are political police,” he said, citing the FSB’s political interference as the reason he left television. He is now seeking political asylum in the Netherlands.
“It’s like total persecution, collecting material on a lot of people with the aim of scaring them and keeping them afraid.
“The scale,” he added, “is frightening.”
Men in gray suits
Navalny’s aides claim Russian special services showed up after he was poisoned and his Aug. 20 flight to Moscow made an emergency landing in Omsk, a city in Siberia.
Doctors initially resisted family pressure to evacuate him to Germany for treatment while unidentified men in gray suits took over the office of the chief doctor, Alexander Murakhovksy He declined to say who they were.
Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, alleged they were members of Russia’s security services.
Rubin, who first reported Belousov’s story, said the FSB, the Interior Ministry, Kremlin and other branches of Putin’s authoritarian state were simultaneously tracking and trying to undermine Navalny and others.
“All parts of the Russian authoritarian political system do ‘work’ on him,” Rubin said. “It’s a huge amount of people. They are all involved in trying to struggle against one person.”
[Analysis: Trump’s silence on Navalny]
Navalny was under close surveillance on his recent Siberian trip, according to pro-Kremlin newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, citing federal agents about the operation tracking where he stayed, whom he met, his credit card spending, food orders, drink receipts and details of a nighttime river swim.

Members of the punk band Pussy Riot — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, left, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina — sit in a glass-walled cage during a court hearing in Moscow on Aug. 17, 2012.  (Andrey Smirnov/AFP/Getty Images)
That sounds familiar to Tolokonnikova, the Pussy Riot member.
Last September, she and a friend planned a protest photo session with a rainbow LGBT flag. But police knew about it in advance.
“At the moment we were leaving our apartment three police cars came to arrest us,” she said. “They told me about the whole plan of making pictures with the rainbow flag. So they read our chats. They read our Telegram.”
Rubin asserted that Kremlin officials discussed jailing Navalny in 2017, but decided against, because it might have caused mass protests.
They resolved to fight him using all the tools of the state, including propaganda, disinformation, even spreading a rumor he is really a Kremlin agent, Rubin said. He claimed the Kremlin paid freelancers under the table to spread disinformation on social media. The Kremlin agent conspiracy theory has been surprisingly tenacious, with detractors convinced that he would be in jail or dead if he was not protected by the Kremlin.
Rubin’s statements could not be independently verified, but they fit with known efforts to discredit Navalny, keep him under surveillance, frequently detain and jail him.
In 2017, thugs from the pro-Kremlin movement SERB threw acidic green antiseptic into Navalny’s face, burning his retina. In July 2019, he had a severe allergic reaction while in prison, and suspected he was poisoned.
Rubin said that contacts in the Kremlin and elsewhere had warned Rubin that his reporting for Proyekt would endanger him and that he should “be afraid.”
The night before Navalny was stricken on Aug. 20, he met young activists and members of his headquarters in the Siberian city Tomsk, including Ilya Chumakov, 24, an electrical engineer. Chumakov said if not for Navalny’s courage, strength and charisma, the street protest movement in Russia would have faded away.
Navalny was asked at the nighttime meeting why he wasn’t dead, given all his enemies.
“Navalny joked back, ‘Am I supposed to find excuses now on why I haven’t been killed?’ And he smiled,” said Chumakov in an interview.  Suddenly serious, Navalny said Putin did not want him to be made into a martyr.
“He said, ‘If I am killed, it won’t help Putin.’ ”

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