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Ahead Of Protests, Russia Cracks Down On Navalny's Allies -- And TikTok


Russians Use TikTok In Social-Media Surge Of Support For Navalny
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WATCH: Russians Use TikTok In Social-Media Surge Of Support For Navalny

TikTok is flooded with messages of support for Aleksei Navalny. Pop stars and influencers are speaking out in his defense. And allies of the Russian opposition leader are using seemingly any platform imaginable to promote a singular cause: street demonstrations calling for his release from jail.

But the flurry of political activity, slammed by the Kremlin as incitement of illegal rallies, has prompted a sweeping counteroffensive from the state ahead of the rallies planned for January 23. And as police visit the homes of activists, journalists, and even subscribers to pro-Navalny social-media sites, the authorities are making clear that protests will be met with a heavy response.

"Certain quasi-politicians have announced unsanctioned events across the country," Deputy Interior Minister Aleksandr Gorovoy told Interfax. "We have the legal basis to launch legal cases against anyone who promotes them in person, online, or through the dissemination of written statements."

Even from jail, Navalny has continued to challenge the Kremlin. His latest volley against state corruption -- a two-hour video about a $1.36 billion palace on the Black Sea allegedly belonging to President Vladimir Putin -- was released just two days after he was detained immediately upon his January 17 return to Russia following life-saving treatment in Germany for a poisoning attack.

The video has since become the most-watched report ever published by Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, and the 44-year-old activist and politician has continued to call for protests from custody. He has called the court order that he serve 30 days in pretrial detention -- pending a hearing on his alleged violation of the terms of a suspended sentence on fraud charges -- a "mockery of justice."

In the meantime, his supporters have been targeted. Vladlen Los, a lawyer for Navalny's organization, said he was instructed to leave the country until January 25 -- two days after the planned protests. On January 22, a court in Moscow sentenced Navalny’s press secretary Kira Yarmysh to nine days in jail on charges of inciting protest.

Others have reported visits from police officers wielding written warnings about the illegality of any demonstrations. Lyubov Sobol, a top Navalny aide, streamed one such visit online. She was detained not long after for allegedly inciting unrest.

“I doubt the story will end here,” Sobol told Current Time upon her release on January 21. "Perhaps now they will come when I return home. They can come tomorrow morning to raid [my house]."

Online, dissent has proliferated in ways the state has struggled to rein in. By the afternoon of January 21, posts bearing the hashtag #свободунавальному (Free Navalny) on the TikTok video app had gathered more than 80 million views.

Some showed teenagers removing Putin portraits that hang in Russian schools and replacing them with photos of Navalny. Others mocked the kitsch interiors of Putin's alleged palace depicted in digital renderings published by Navalny, or slammed the opposition politician's arrest upon his return from treatment for his August 20 nerve-agent poisoning in Siberia.

"Every day at law school I learn about following Russian laws, about how legal cases should work and how human rights are guaranteed," one TikTok user wrote in captions to a video. "But in Russia, everything happens differently."

Lyubov Sobol, a top Navalny aide, spoke to the media at a police station after her release on January 21.
Lyubov Sobol, a top Navalny aide, spoke to the media at a police station after her release on January 21.

Authorities have instructed TikTok to remove any material promoting protests, arguing that the message could lead minors to illegal action, and warned of hefty fines against any social-media platform that carries it. The following day, the state RIA news agency reported that the Prosecutor-General's Office had ordered all web pages promoting the protests to be blocked.

Amid the crackdown, some high-profile Navalny supporters have reported influxes of social-media followers whose lack of previous online activity and odd profile names -- random combinations of letters and digits -- that experts say resemble bots programmed to file complaints against the accounts and get them shut down.

"I don't know what they're planning but I'm closing my account till at least the 23rd," tweeted self-described satirist Alexander Thorn, one of many opposition-minded public figures who reported an unusual surge in followers.

Indeed, the world of Russian social media and entertainment appears split in its approach to Navalny's jailing, his latest video investigation, and his call for protests.

Many of the country's biggest Instagram stars have voiced their stance, with a flurry of near-identical video posts criticizing Navalny's alleged Western ties prompting some bloggers to be accused of selling themselves out to the state.

Other influencers have come out in support of Navalny, with some noting the possible repercussions for speaking out in an increasingly restrictive political climate and the danger of joining protests in a country where mass political gatherings not sanctioned by the state are illegal -- and only single-person pickets still permitted by law.

"Few celebrities and big bloggers are speaking out about what's taking place," Aleksandra Mitroshina wrote to her 2.5 million followers. "I know why: it's scary. I'm also afraid to write this."

Ivan Alekseyev, a popular rapper who performs under the name Noise MC, published a video address to his fans in which he acknowledged his privileged status but said political freedoms were being restricted even for people like him.

"I earned money not thanks to this regime but despite it," he said. "My concerts have been cancelled or thwarted by the security services, I've faced legal cases and attempts to deprive me of my profession."

Beyond Moscow, the crackdown has targeted Navalny's regional headquarters, which are coordinating preparations for protests in various cities and urging residents to come out. In the Siberian city of Omsk, the opposition leader's local office was raided by law enforcement, and in the Republic of Tatarstan, authorities launched a criminal case against a Navalny supporter.

Navalny's hearing related to his earlier fraud case, which he says was trumped-up to silence him, will take place on February 2. With it comes the prospect that his suspended sentence could be turned into a prison term of up to 3 1/2 years. Three days later, he will head to court to face a separate charge of defamation.

The scale of the protests for his release may affect the likelihood of his convictions: in 2013, after a demonstration by supporters, a Moscow court suspended a prison sentence he had initially received in one of the two fraud trials he has faced.

Now, with the threat of real prison time for Navalny, the viability of his nationwide network of activists may be crucial in determining the future of his dogged opposition campaign.

"His chain of regional headquarters has shown itself to be uncancellable," political scientist Yekaterina Schulmann told RFE/RL. "Whatever repression they've faced since 2017, and especially since 2019, has not stopped their operations. They can work without Navalny."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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