As protests to support Alexei Navalny continue, the Russian state media are building their own false narratives around the events
On the 17th of January, Russian anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny returned to Russia from Berlin and was instantly arrested by Russian authorities. On the 23rd of January, rallies broke out across Russian cities: protestors showing their support for Navalny – the most prominent face of Russian opposition to President Vladimir Putin – and calling for his release. Almost instantly, the Russian state media began to publish stories drawing unfavourable parallels with the pro-democracy protests that have taken place in Belarus since May 2020, deflecting from the situation in Russia and focusing on the discord within their neighbour state.
This reportage does not stand in isolation. Russian state channels have identified several “puppeteers” in their coverage of protests, promoting the idea that opposition leaders like Navalny, along with his supporters, are influenced or even backed by the West, unable to think independently. As anti-government demonstrations look set to continue in Russia, Belarus Press Club highlights how these approaches within Russian propaganda have shaped inaccurate and harmful narratives around the Russian protests, as well as the ongoing protests in Belarus.
A game of comparison
“The events of last year in Belarus only spurred the Kremlin's sense of danger,” Russian non-state media channel Dozhd recently told its viewers. Over the past week, Russian protests have been routinely compared with those in Belarus, with the deputy head of the RF Ministry of Internal Affairs, Alyaksandr Gorovoy, predicting the events as “possible attempts to repeat the Belarusian scenario in Russia” and to “destabilize the situation in Russia, similar to the situation in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan.”
Another channel, Interfax, in referring to Gorovoy’s statement, added: “Using the example of proven political technologies in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, one cannot exclude the possibility of a similar swinging of the situation in our country.” By drawing such comparisons, Russian media seeks to frame the recent protests as a spilling over from Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, rather than a purely domestic problem. They distract Russian audiences from asking questions about the causes of events in their own country.
Going even further, TV channel Russia 24 claimed that "the Russian protesters were warmed up with an old photo from Minsk." A news piece on VGRK (All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company) claimed that older images from Belarus (including of military transport vehicles en route to repress demonstrations, and of mass protests in the street) were in fact recorded in Russia that day. By zeroing in on individual cases of misinformation on social media, the coverage seeks to distract from the actual causes behind the protests across Russia – pro-Navalny, anti-corruption, anti-Putin – and, in citing a key Telegram channel for Belarusian opposition content, to paint the movement as a ‘bad influence’, weaponizing disinformation and emotionally manipulative content to encourage aggressive action from Russians.
Navalny vs Tsikhanouskaya
Just as the eruption of protests in Belarus and Russia are paralleled, so are the opposition leaders: Lukashenko’s former election rival Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya and Navalny. Coverage of Tsikhanouskaya has, until recently, focused on how the Belarusian opposition leader is working in Lithuania and Poland - countries who are variously framed in pro-Kremlin as hypocrites, aggressors or Western puppets. It is also emphasised that the Belarusian opposition leader has regularly appealed to Russia, highlighting the exclusive influence Russia has on the situation in Belarus. Now, a new narrative is developing: that Navalny returned to Russia despite threats because he does not want to be compared to Tsikhanouskaya, who is in Lithuania and – as they report – has no plans to return to Belarus.
The channel Dozhd is especially active in its promotion of this narrative. On the air, presenter Mikhail Fishman discussed Navalny's return with political scientist Gleb Pavlovsky, claiming that “he could have done it later, it was not necessary to do it right now,” but “this is a necessary action... if he had not returned to Russia, he would have turned into another category of politics.” Pavlovsky agrees, claiming that Navalny "did not want to become an analogue of some Belarusian politicians” [i.e. Tsikhanouskaya]. On the channel Dozhd, Russian political pundit Ilya Yashin contributed to this thesis, stating: "Navalny does not want to turn into another version of Tsikhanouskaya... the leader of the emigre movement." This new narrative seeks to undermine Tsikhanouskaya, and echoes the sexist approach of past depictions of Tsikhanouskaya in the Russian media.
Innocent “child” protestors
Another tactic of the Russian media to downplay or discredit the protestors was to present them as misguided youths spurred by social media. As Russia 1 reported, “popular messengers and social networks have done [...] everything for teenagers to go to rallies”. Putin has directed blame for the demonstrations towards social media companies like Facebook and TikTok, and Russian media watchdogs say these platforms have “failed to comply” with deleting posts that promote protests, according to the BBC. The guilty party in this circumstance is not the Russian government but “foreign Internet platforms", which according to Russia 1, “did everything so that children would be under attack [...] in every sense.”
Russia 1 further emphasised the age of protestors with reports that read: “Here are shots from Abakan – it seems that this is a whole school excursion”. And in another report, “many adolescents, for example, in Krasnoyarsk, were openly lured to a political rally”. Elsewhere on Russia 1, a vivid picture of innocent “child” protestors was created for the viewer: “The participation of children in illegal actions has become a real nightmare for their parents... many of them went to the place themselves to take the teenagers home.”
Conversely, while protestors were depicted as innocents misled by social media, they were also depicted as dangerous. Russia 1 reminded viewers of the risk to public safety that such protests pose, given the pandemic. “The day before [the protests], the doctors unanimously said: because of the pandemic, in no case should mass actions be held in Moscow,” explained one Russia 1 presenter, further inciting panic with the statement that “among those who took to the streets there were patients with coronavirus.” Andrei Shkoda, chief physician of the City Clinical Hospital No. 67, was quoted as saying: “Judging by what I saw today, all epidemiological safety requirements have been violated, a crowd of people without masks, no social distancing – all of this can cause a surge in a new wave of infections.”
Social media platforms weren’t the only outside agitators, according to Russian media. There were also accusations against the US Embassy, put forward by Maria Zakharova from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Allegedly, “American diplomats interfered in Russia's internal affairs by publishing routes of protest actions on their website under the guise of informing their own citizens.”
The report continues: “it was done as if it were exclusively for its citizens, who, for security reasons, are advised by diplomats to avoid demonstrations.” Yet Russian reports drew attention to the nuance of "the current Covid times when American tourists are not in Russia”, with Zakharova summarising that she believes the posts were a call to action, inciting protestors. Her statement, as an official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, is quoted as: “American colleagues who have allowed themselves to really interfere in our internal affairs in the information space will have to explain themselves at the Foreign Office."
In the wake of the initial protests, Western media alike reported that more than 3,300 protesters were arrested, alongside cases of registered police brutality. Independent Riga-based Russian language publication Meduza noted: “Mass arrests are recorded” and it is stated that “the number of arrests in the Russian capital has become a record for a single action,” and "over three thousand people have been detained throughout Russia ... this has never happened before.” Attacks on journalists were also reported, yet meanwhile, Russian state media proudly presented itself as an authority which is resolute in the face of riots, downplaying police brutality and representing mass arrests more as proof of the state’s strength. Dozhd informed viewers only that “the rallies were commented on in the Kremlin”, and going into great detail on the number of arrests made. The press secretary of the Russian President, Dmitry Peskov, said that “few people went to the illegal rallies, because a lot vote for Putin”.
The Russian government took familiar tacks when reporting the protests. They sought to minimise the size and significance of the protests to domestic audiences and strip the protestors of agency and legitimacy by portraying them as young and naive. The state media also scapegoated the reasons for the protests in clear ways: by aligning the protests with Belarus, by blaming social media propaganda, and by shaping a story that suggests the protests were encouraged by Western forces.
If the protests in the Russian Federation may be part of the global agenda, so the logic projected to Russian citizens goes, there is no point in looking for reasons for discontent within your state. The overarching effect of these methods is to detract from the reality of the situation in Russia, and frame the protests as influenced almost entirely by external parties.