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Voldemort No More? Putin Foe Navalny Makes Rare Appearance On Russian State TV

For Russian state-controlled media, opposition politician Aleksei Navalny pretty much doesn't exist. That's why many were shocked to see some of his views aired on Rossia-1.
For Russian state-controlled media, opposition politician Aleksei Navalny pretty much doesn't exist. That's why many were shocked to see some of his views aired on Rossia-1.

For years, Aleksei Navalny has chronicled alleged corruption and exposed potential misdeeds by President Vladimir Putin and some of his closest allies.

And for years, amid frequent stints in jail on charges supporters say have been trumped up, the vocal Kremlin foe has -- for the most part -- been pointedly ignored by Putin, his aides, and state media outlets.

That's why it came as a shock to friends and enemies alike when a program on Russia state-run television not only broadcast Navalny’s name but also aired some of his criticisms of Putin's government.

60 Minutes is a popular talk show with a panel of guests slugging it out -- within tightly controlled limits – on the issues of the day as Kremlin-loyal hosts Yevgeny Popov and Olga Skabeyeva oversee the spectacle. Airing on the state-run Rossia-1 network, the June 25 edition dedicated time to discussing the delayed Victory Day parade held in Moscow a day earlier.

The military parade, with its thousands of soldiers and hardware on display in Red Square, was moved back due to the COVID-19 pandemic from its traditional date of May 9, when the Allied victory over Nazi Germany is normally commemorated in Russia.

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Though lockdowns have rolled back, critics questioned the wisdom of spending lots of cash on a parade – and of holding it at all -- at a time when Russia continues to record thousands of new coronavirus infections daily. Russia has the third-highest number of coronavirus infections in the world after the United States and Brazil, with nearly 620,000 confirmed cases, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University in the United States.

And with social distancing judged to be the key to slowing the spread of the coronavirus, many felt it foolhardy to hold such a mass event.

Among the most outspoken critics has been Navalny.

"The whole country is amazed: What the hell do we need a parade for? What is it needed for?" Navalny said in a video posted to his YouTube channel. "Everyone in the country knows that all this madness is done for one person only."

Many Putin opponents say he timed the parade in a bid to stoke patriotic sentiment and bolster support for a June 25 to July 1 vote on constitutional amendments, including one allowing the 67-year-old leader to seek two more presidential terms and potentially rule until 2036.

On the 60 Minutes program, part of Navalny's YouTube video was aired as the two hosts and guest panelists stared up at the big screen.

On Twitter, blogger Rustem Adagamov posted a segment of the show, writing: "On Rossia-1 TV channel they are giving a lot of time to Navalny, who is blasting Putin for his carnival parade. Well done!"

The program also cited Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer and prominent opposition figure who is a member of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation.

"My father turned on the television, by chance to Rossia-1, and there was your face,” Twitter user Artyom Matveyev wrote in a post that included a screenshot of the show featuring Sobol. “They were discussing something about criticism of the parade.”

Several people who commented on social media said that although Navalny's stance was slammed on the program by the hosts and by many of the panelists – with the exception of the token government critic – his views seemed to be given a fair hearing and the show included a number of quotes from him and from Sobol.

Commentators also noted that the program focused on Navalny's breakdown of the cost of the parade.

In a blog post on June 22, Navalny said that the state had spent almost 1 billion rubles ($14.4 million) on the parade, not including expenditures from the military budget.

"You could buy medicine for pensioners for this money," he said in the post, in a comment that was not quoted on the show. "Two and a half months people [were] at home, half of them without work or salaries. A parade is the last thing on their minds. But this bunker grandpa wants a parade, he needs to show himself off on the reviewing stand."

Navalny himself had little to say about his inclusion on the program.

On his YouTube channel, Navalny -- who came in second in a Moscow mayoral election in 2013, has attempted to run for president, and is a trained lawyer -- noted with a laugh that he was described only as a blogger.

The 60 Minutes program also took aim at coverage by Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, questioning polling data broadcast by Current Time that suggested, among other things, that a majority of those Russians surveyed think Russian state media coverage involving World War II is "complete propaganda."

The sudden attention is a change, given that Kremlin officials have so assiduously avoided referring to Navalny by name that he has been likened to Lord Voldemort, the villain in British author J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels who is sometimes called He Who Must Not Be Named and You Know Who.

It could be aimed to appease opponents and present a softer stance amid the weeklong vote on constitutional changes. But it may not mark a major rethink by the Kremlin on Navalny, who has twice been convicted of financial crimes in cases he and supporters contend were fabricated to prevent him from challenging Putin in elections.

Earlier this month, Russian authorities opened a criminal case against Navalny, accusing him of slandering a veteran of World War II.

The case, announced on June 15 by the Investigative Committee, stems from comments Navalny posted on social media about a video on state-funded RT television.

In it, several prominent Russians speak in favor of the constitutional vote. Among those featured was 93-year-old veteran Ignat Artemenko.

Navalny’s post criticized the people in the video, suggesting they were “without conscience.” The case against Navalny says the comments were “false information discrediting the honor and dignity of a veteran of the Great Patriotic War.”

Russian officials bridle at any criticism connected to the Red Army’s actions in the war, especially as the country marks the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. If convicted, Navalny could face a fine of up to one year’s income or 240 hours of community service.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Russian Service
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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