Between January-February 2021, demonstrations in support of Alexei Navalny, detained upon his return from Germany, were held across Russia. January 23 was the first day of nation-wide protests, with events held across 198 Russian towns. The events were not authorized by the authorities and were met with arrests. Another wave of nation-wide protest occurred on January 31 st . According to OVD-Info, 5,611 people were arrested on this day . On February 4, 2021, Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff announced that protests would be suspended. Between January and February 2021, Channel 1, one of Russia’s leading state-controlled TV outlets, published 40 news articles on protest taking place in Russia. We review them below.
The pandemic was used to justify protest permit rejections
To justify the use of preventive and responsive repression, Channel 1 used a range of arguments. For example, on a couple of occasions, the pandemic was cited as the justification for denying permission to protest. Channel 1 also referenced protests that were denied permits due to the pandemic around the world. Not only, in anticipation of the protests, Channel 1 commonly broadcasted statements from public health officials imploring people to stay at home and reminding them of the risks of Covid-19 transmission during gathering. This narrative was also used to suggest that protestors were reckless and unconcerned with public safety. After the protest of January 23, Channel 1 reported data from apps which showed a certain number of Covid-19 positive people had been in the protest crowds.
Drawing parallels with protest permits, and protest abroad
On some occasions, Channel 1 also compared Russia’s protest notification system to that of Western countries, implicitly suggesting that Russia’s permit system is not repressive, and in fact is quite reasonable. Details were given of French, Swiss and of the UK permit systems. Comparisons with the West were commonly drawn. This was often done in order to paint Western countries as hypocrites: they accuse Russia of inappropriate policing but look at France’s treatment of the yellow vest protesters, Netherlands of anti-lockdown protests, and the US of Capitol rioters.
Prevent protest participation and discredit organizers
Channel 1 used several arguments frames. The most prominent and emotively framed theme used was around the promotion of unauthorized protest events to children and teenagers. This was grounds for the most strident criticism of protest organisers, linked to stories about social media, in particular which networks were removing posts at Roskomnadzor’s request and which were not.
Protest organizers were also accused of receiving foreign funding. At times, Channel 1 also accused the West of financially backing the organizers of protest. A lot of outrage was generated over the US embassy posting times/locations of protests on its website (advising US nationals to avoid these routes). These talking points are often led by statements from officials, Maria Zakharova (Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman) in particular. At times it is heavily implied that various Western agencies are directly responsible for organising the protests. Linked to the above, some reports suggested that the protests were a colour revolution in preparation. The situation was also compared to Maidan in Ukraine and the 2020 protest cycle in Belarus.