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Fake U.S. 'Diplomat' Crashes Russian Opposition Event In Election Smear Hijinks

Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin (file photo)

Russia's opposition over the past week has been targeted in a guerrilla campaign -- promoted in the state-run and Kremlin-loyal media -- portraying them as puppets of U.S. diplomats during an election campaign in the Volga region of Kostroma.

The antics continued on September 10, when a man dressed in a suit reportedly arrived at opposition politician Ilya Yashin's meeting with Kostroma voters and introduced himself, in broken Russian, as a representative of the U.S. ambassador, Yashin wrote on Facebook.

One of Yashin's cohorts quickly went to the car in which the purported diplomat arrived, a white Chevrolet Cruze hatchback that appeared to have red diplomatic license plates that upon closer inspection were merely stickers covering up a normal, black-and-white Russian license plate.

"The fake 'diplomat' took cover in the car and drove off," Yashin wrote.

In addition to being demonized in the state-owned media as Western puppets kept off the ballot due to bureaucratic hurdles, Russia's liberal opposition has consistently faced bizarre and elaborate campaign stunts aimed at discrediting them over the past decade.

Political opponents have paid homeless people to attend opposition rallies in a bid to make attendees look shabby and pitiful, while pro-Kremlin activists have previously dressed up like doctors and hounded opposition candidates on the stump by claiming they need psychiatric care.

Russian state media have picked up on efforts to link the opposition to U.S. diplomats in the run-up to the September 13 elections in Kostroma and other Russian regions.

In a September 4 report on alleged American spies operating in Moscow, the state-run Rossia-24 news channel broadcast a video purporting to show opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and his colleagues meeting with a U.S. diplomat at a Kostroma restaurant.

The footage does not appear to show anyone at the table other than Navalny, Yashin, opposition activist Leonid Volkov, and a local Communist Party candidate.

The original video was made by a pro-Kremlin blogger who also filmed a man resembling a U.S. diplomat at a nearby table in the restaurant. The blogger claimed this as evidence that Navalny was meeting with his U.S. "mentor."

Navalny called the claim a lie, and Volkov said he plans to pursue libel charges against media outlets that aired the claims about supposed opposition ties to U.S. diplomats.

Will Stevens, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, told RFE/RL on September 10 that two U.S. diplomats traveled to Kostroma last week "and requested meetings with government officials, as well as representatives from the various parties participating in the upcoming local elections."

"Similar to the activities of Russian diplomats in the United States, our diplomats here in Russia meet with government officials, business leaders, academics, journalists, as well as politicians from the ruling party and other political parties inside Russia," Stevens said.

He declined to comment on the purported U.S. diplomat with the fake diplomatic license plates.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.