Some of the biggest anti-Kremlin protests in years swept across Russia on Monday with over 1,000 people detained by the police ahead of a presidential election next year. But anyone relying on state TV would have concluded they were a non-event.
Vremya, state TV’s flagship evening news show, relegated news of the protests to item nine of 10, and, in a report lasting around 30 seconds, said less than 2,000 people had shown up in Moscow. Some 150 people had been detained for disobeying the police elsewhere in the city, it said. The main news of the day, according to Vremya, had instead been President Vladimir Putin’s handing out of state awards.
The Internet, awash with images and videos of police hauling people off across the country and, in at least one case, of a protester being punched, had a different take.
A live feed organized by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was detained in Moscow before he could attend what the authorities said was an illegal protest, showed demonstrations in scores of cities from Vladivostok to St Petersburg and thousands of people converging on central Moscow.
Other footage showed some protesters chanting “Russia without Putin” and “Down with the Tsar.”
The competing versions of one day in Vladimir Putin’s Russia highlight the battle being fought between state TV, where most Russians get their news, and the Internet, which Putin critic Navalny is using to try to unseat the veteran Russian leader.
Ahead of a presidential election in March which Putin is expected to contest and that Navalny hopes to run in, the battle for Russians’ hearts and minds is escalating.
On the face of it, the contest is one-sided. Polls show that Putin, who has dominated Russian political life for the last 17 years, will comfortably win if he stands, while a poll last month said only 1 percent would vote for Navalny.
Putin has enjoyed glowing Soviet-style coverage on state TV for almost two decades. Navalny barely gets a look in, and if he does it is inevitably a negative reference.
The Kremlin and top government officials deliberately try not to mention his name, and state TV largely ignored Navalny’s last big protests, in March, too. Dmitry Kiselyov, anchor of Russia’s main weekly TV news show “Vesti Nedeli,” explained then that his show had ignored the demonstrations, the largest since 2012, because he viewed Navalny as a corrupt political chancer.
“Our Western colleagues would have done exactly the same,” said Kiselyov.
Handed a five-year suspended prison sentence in February for embezzlement, Navalny says he is not corrupt and that the conviction was politically-motivated to try to kill off his presidential campaign.
The 41-year-old lawyer has been trying to use the Internet to circumvent what he says is a TV blackout. He has set up his own YouTube channel, which has over 300,000 subscribers, become a prolific social media poster, and regularly circulates clips of himself criticizing Putin, 64, whom he calls “the old man.”
Partly funded by supporters’ campaign contributions, his online push has had some success, particularly among school children and students, though his support base includes older people,too, who typically live in Russia’s big cities.
A video he made accusing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a Putin ally, of living a luxury lifestyle far outstripping his official salary, has so far racked up more than 22 million online views. Medvedev said the allegations were nonsense.
Navalny’s detractors have gone online too.
A video likening him to Adolf Hitler has racked up over 2 million views on YouTube, as has a music video released ahead of Monday’s protests by pop singer Alisa Voks who urged young fans to “stay out of politics” and do their homework instead.
Businessman Alisher Usmanov, whom Navalny targeted in his Medvedev video, also used the Internet to hit back, making two videos of his own questioning Navalny’s probity.
Navalny’s critics, including some other anti-Kremlin politicians, accuse him of holding dangerously nationalist views and of having denigrated migrants in the past. Navalny says he is able to talk to, and connect with, different parts of the electorate.
Serving out a 30-day jail sentence for his role in organising Monday’s protests, Navalny has mocked his opponents’ efforts to use the Internet.
He says his Medvedev video has been watched by more people than some TV programmes, but for now he says state TV has the upper hand.
“Right now TV is more effective,” he told supporters after his release from jail in April after the last round of protests. “But we’re looking for new methods. We need to keep making videos.”