Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 22 December 2020



Russia cracks down on online dissent after Alexei Navalny’s trick phone call

Alexei Navalny used leaked government databases to build a case against those who allegedly poisoned him © Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty

Max Seddon in Moscow

Russia has passed a law making it a crime to reveal personal data about members of its security services after activist Alexei Navalny used leaked phone data and travel records to expose a man he claims was involved in poisoning his underpants with the nerve agent novichok.

The State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, rushed through the bill’s second and third readings with almost no discussion on Tuesday.

The bill forms part of a sweeping crackdown on dissent online and is expected to pass through the rubber-stamp upper chamber before President Vladimir Putin signs it into law.

The Kremlin wants to limit Mr Navalny’s influence ahead of parliamentary elections next year and has struggled to deal with reports alleging the FSB, its top domestic security service, poisoned him in Siberia in August.

Growing dissatisfaction with years of slumping real incomes and the Kremlin’s patchy response to the pandemic have seen both Mr Putin’s personal approval rating and that of his party United Russia sink to record lows this year.

The data law is part of a series of moves aimed at stopping Mr Navalny’s allies from repeating their unexpected success in local elections this autumn.

They include provisions that would brand opposition candidates as “foreign agents”, outlaw spontaneous protest, increase government restrictions on content shared online and potentially ban YouTube, where Mr Navalny has evaded censorship to build a nationwide audience.

Lawmakers want the data bill to bar information being published about the security services, police, military officers and judges on grounds that “it negatively affects their ability to carry out their duties and inhibits justice and fighting crime”.

Mr Navalny has used leaked government databases to accuse senior officials of staggering corruption and build a case against his alleged poisoners. Last week, Mr Navalny and the investigative website Bellingcat used data purchased on the black market to claim that a group of eight FSB agents with expertise in chemical weapons and medicine shadowed Mr Navalny on 37 trips, including the day he was poisoned in Tomsk.

Mr Navalny on Monday released a recording of a 49-minute phone call he said he made to a chemical weapons expert for the FSB, the KGB’s successor agency, in which he pretended to be a senior security official and tricked the alleged spy into revealing new details of his poisoning.

The man, purportedly an FSB agent, said FSB operatives had applied novichok to “the so-called codpiece” along the seams of a blue pair of Mr Navalny’s underpants. He said Mr Navalny owed his survival to the quick-thinking pilots who landed the plane in nearby Omsk, where an ambulance crew gave him the drug atropine.

Mr Navalny, 44, was later flown to Berlin, where he spent three weeks in a coma. He remains in Germany but has vowed to return to Russia once he makes a recovery.

The FSB said Mr Navalny’s video — which racked up 13m views on YouTube in 24 hours — was a “forgery” made with help from the CIA.

Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday that Mr Navalny “clearly suffers from a pronounced persecution complex . . . and certain delusions of grandeur”, according to Interfax.

Mr Putin confirmed last week that Mr Navalny was under heavy surveillance but denied the Kremlin wanted him poisoned. “Who needs him? If they wanted [to poison him], they would probably have finished the job,” Mr Putin said at his annual press conference.

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