Russia’s state-controlled media has been turning to a disinformation playbook it has used before in a bid to discredit protesters agitating for the release from prison of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, say analysts.
Navalny was detained on his return to Moscow for parole violations after recovering in Germany from a near-fatal poisoning. His arrest has triggered the largest anti-Kremlin protests seen in Russia since 2011, and Washington is being blamed for the demonstrations, with Kremlin officials and state media presenters alleging that Western powers, mainly the U.S., are behind the agitation.
“Washington is becoming a convenient pretext for accusations, although in reality it has very little to do with what is happening,” Donald Jensen, director of the United States Institute of Peace, a research organization, told VOA’s Russian service. “This is a question for (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and the Russian people, and it is clear that a significant minority of Russians are unhappy.”
Nikolai Patrushev, head of Russia’s security council, has compared the Navalny protests to the popular Maidan uprising in Ukraine of 2013-2014, which he and other Kremlin officials also accused the West of fomenting.
He told the state-owned weekly newspaper Argumenty i Fakti the West needs Navalny, “To destabilize the situation in Russia, for social upheavals, strikes and new Maidans.”
“What this can lead to we see in the example of Ukraine, which in essence, has lost its independence,” he added.
Disinformation analysts also are drawing comparisons to the Maidan revolt — not as an example of Western intervention, but in terms of the Kremlin’s information management strategy launched to try to save Putin ally President Viktor Yanukovych from ouster.
They say many of the same memes, tropes and conspiracy theories dissimulated during the Maidan revolt are being used now to try to shape a narrative discrediting pro-Navalny protesters.
In 2013, when hundreds of thousands of pro-Europe protesters occupied Kyiv’s Maidan to demand Yanukovych’s resignation, Kremlin-controlled media portrayed the people behind the uprising as being opposed to traditional, socially conservative Russian values of family and religion.
Among the memes Russian disinformation channels broadcast were those conflating the agitation with homosexuality, warning of the risk that a homo-dictatorship would be established in Ukraine, according to analysts.
“There’s a long tradition of pro-Kremlin propaganda using homophobic rhetoric to discredit pro-democracy activism,” said Zarine Kharazian, an analyst at the Digital Forensic Research Lab, part of the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-based research group. The lab studies disinformation campaigns.
The protesters in the early days of the revolt were predominately young and their occupation of the Maidan, one of Kyiv’s central squares, was sparked by Yanukovych’s decision not to sign an association agreement with the European Union. Because the EU supports same-sex marriage, Russia’s state-controlled media’s “starting point was that the European Union was homosexual, and so the Ukrainian movement toward Europe must be, as well,” according to Yale academic Timothy Snyder.
Writing in his book, “The Road to Unfreedom,” Snyder noted, “In November and December 2013, the Russia media covering the Maidan introduced the irrelevant theme of gay sex at every turn.”
As the anti-Kremlin protests erupted this week in Moscow, St. Petersburg and about 70 other towns across Russia, state-controlled media appeared again to color the political agitation with sexual politics, accusing protest leaders of “political pedophilia,” part of an official claim that most protesters were manipulated minors.
Sociologists say the protesters came from a range of age groups, although some 25 percent were 18- to 25-year-olds. Nonetheless, Russian officials say Navalny and his supporters have been exploiting the vulnerability of children and the young, persuading them to demonstrate in the streets. “This is a serious operation,” alleged Valery Fadeyev, head of Putin's human rights council.
TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov, the head of Rossiya Segodnya, complained on his marquee show “News of the Week.” “There are people who are so low, they drag children into politics, like political pedophiles. Is this bad? It’s horrible.” Other presenters on Russian newscasts also tagged protesters as “political pedophiles.”
Pedophilia, with or without the qualifier “political,” is a charged word in Russia, say disinformation analysts. They argue that the government has a long propaganda history of linking homosexuality with pedophilia. They say labeling the protesters as pedophiles has to be understood within a larger state project of defining Russia’s identity in terms of traditional values, delineating Russia from a Western world often portrayed by the Kremlin as dissolute and decadent.
“I do think it’s an attempt to paint opposition protests as ‘Western’ and fundamentally at odds with ‘traditional Russian values,’” said Kharazian. “The equating of homosexuality and pedophilia is based on common homophobic tropes of homosexuality as ‘unnatural’ or in some way ‘perverted.’ And beyond Maidan, these homophobic narratives have also been applied to protests in Armenia, Venezuela, Georgia and elsewhere.
“It is hard to say if this tactic will work for a wide swathe of Russians, but for those already receptive to anti-Western propaganda, it certainly is potent,” she said.
Putin avoided mentioning his foe Navalny by name in a midweek speech to the World Economic Forum. But he warned against the “destruction” of traditional values. “The social and values crisis is already having negative demographic consequences, from which mankind is at risk of losing entire civilizational and cultural continents.”
Putin himself has defended Russia's anti-gay laws in the past by equating gays with pedophiles, saying Russia needs to “cleanse” itself of homosexuality.
In an interview in 2014 with ABC TV, on the eve of the Sochi Olympics, he suggested that gays are more likely to abuse children. And in September 2013, Putin talked about the excesses of Western political correctness, which he said had “reached the point where there are serious discussions on the registration of parties that have propaganda of pedophilia as their objective.”
Jakub Kalensky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a colleague of Kharazian, says the Kremlin-controlled media’s homophobic tropes are “playing into the prejudices of some of the more conservative Russians. It’s not just about influencing the audience, but also using the audience's prejudices to discredit the protests,” he said.