When Kremlin officials are asked about Alexei Navalny, they like to laugh off the Russian opposition politician’s chances of challenging president Vladimir Putin. But this week the Kremlin appeared to signal that it does take Mr Navalny seriously after all.
In a video published on YouTube on Wednesday, the politician who organised protests in more than 80 Russian cities last month is depicted as a disciple of Adolf Hitler.
Mr Navalny associated “with people who prepare ethnic cleansing and view Hitler as their guru”, the film’s speaker claims as photo-shopped images show the opposition politician with a swastika armband and in positions resembling the German dictator.
Although the presidential administration denied it produced the clip, most Russian observers interpret it as the Kremlin’s hitting back at a man emerging as an increasingly serious challenger, with 11 months until Russia’s presidential election.
“With public money, they have committed a whole bunch of criminal offences ranging from slander to the display of Nazi symbols,” said Leonid Volkov, Mr Navalny’s campaign manager.
Dmitry Travin, a professor at European University in St Petersburg, said the Kremlin itself had now made Mr Navalny the undisputed opposition leader. “It is not clear yet whether it will succeed in discrediting him this way, but everyone who watches this will understand: Navalny — that’s very serious, Navalny — that’s not the insignificant figure as whom they presented him not long ago,” he wrote on Facebook.
The video echoes previous smear campaigns. In January 2012, at the height of Moscow street protests against Mr Putin led by Mr Navalny, videos online showed the opposition politician addressing a crowd next to historic material of Hitler speeches, cut in a way to make their gestures seem similar. Others showed Hitler footage overlaid with audio from Mr Navalny’s speeches.
Most claims in the new video are heavy distortions and lies. It repeats, for example, an allegation from 2013 that Mr Navalny had suggested a “toast to the Holocaust” at a reception hosted by The New Times newspaper — a claim the event’s hosts debunked long ago.
What makes smearing Mr Navalny with Hitler comparisons convenient is the politician’s penchant for nationalism. He has in the past attended the Russian March, an annual nationalist rally including Russian neo-Nazi groups. In 2007, Mr Navalny called for the legalisation of firearms in a video message that suggested Russians should defend themselves against people of other ethnic groups, who were implicitly compared to pests. The same year, he was expelled from the liberal Yabloko party after he founded Narod, a nationalist movement.
Mr Navalny has since toned down his nationalist rhetoric. His supporters are little bothered by his nationalist leanings.
“You could say that there is a certain risk there, sure, but those are his roots as a politician,” said Ruslan Rudenko, a 25-year-old student who heads Mr Navalny’s campaign in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. “Moreover, the status of nationalism in the Russian political landscape is very different from that in Europe. There is no political future for an opposition that is liberal only.”
Mr Navalny’s plans take that into account. In his quest to whip up a popular movement strong enough to force the Kremlin to allow his presidential candidacy — he is currently barred because of a conviction — he is mobilising for a protest march on June 12, Russia’s national holiday.
“We are no longer going to leave that space to those who back Putin, we won’t allow them to call us the Fifth Column any more,” said Mr Rudenko. “We will go there with national flags because it is we who are the patriots.”
Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin spin-doctor, said a smear campaign against Mr Navalny created more publicity for him and demonstrated the “total helplessness of the Kremlin.”
But the video might be just the beginning. The Kremlin has sought to hamper Mr Navalny’s rise with legal action for years. Many expect him to be targeted with court cases from those he has accused of corruption.
Alexei Chesnakov, a political consultant, said the authorities wanted undecided voters to see Mr Navalny as embroiled in constant scandal. Mr Chesnakov said: “If the authorities are consequent and decide to pursue this to the end — drag the opposition politician through the courts, all over the country at that — then Navalny is finished.”