Russian authorities are moving to stamp out protests supporting imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in which people come out to their residential courtyards and shine their mobile phone flashlights in a display of unity.
Kremlin-backed TV channels warned that flashlight rallies were part of major uprisings around the world. State news agencies cited unnamed sources saying a terrorist group was plotting attacks during unapproved mass protests.
The suppression attempts represent a change of tactics for the authorities who once tried to weaken Navalny’s influence by erasing him.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has never mentioned his most prominent critic by name. State news agencies referred to the politician and anti-corruption investigator as “a blogger” in the rare stories they ran mentioning him.
The surge in attention follows Navalny’s latest expose – a two-hour-long video alleging that a lavish palace on Black Sea was built for Putin through corruption. It’s been watched over 111 million times on YouTube since it was posted on January 19.
The video went up two days after Navalny was arrested upon returning to Russia from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. The Russian government denies involvement.
The weekend protests in scores of cities last month over Navalny’s detention represented the largest outpouring of popular discontent in years and appeared to have rattled the Kremlin.
Police reportedly arrested about 10,000 people, and many demonstrators were beaten, while state media sought to downplay the scale of the protests.
In recent days, official media coverage has focused on plans for this weekend’s flashlights-in-courtyards protest. Reports quoted Navalny ally Leonid Volkov’s social media post announcing the event and accused him of acting on instructions from NATO.
“The Kremlin is awfully scared of the flashlight action,” because such a peaceful, light-hearted event would allow the opposition to build a rapport with new supporters who are not ready to be more visible and involved in the protests, Volkov said in a YouTube video.