MOSCOW (AP) — When the team of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny urged people to come out to their residential courtyards and shine their cellphone flashlights in a display of unity, many responded with jokes and skepticism. After two weekends of nationwide demonstrations, the new protest format looked to some like a retreat.
But not to Russian authorities, who moved to extinguish the illuminated protests planned for Sunday.
Officials accused Navalny's allies of acting on NATO's instructions. Kremlin-backed TV channels warned 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.
Kremlin-controlled TV channels used to largely ignore protests called by Navalny. 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.
"Navalny went from a person whose name is not allowed to be mentioned to the main subject of discussion" on state TV, Maria Pevchikh, head of investigations at Navalny's Foundations for Fighting Corruption, said Friday in a YouTube video.
Pevchikh credited Navalny's latest expose for the sudden surge in attention. His foundation's two-hour-long video alleging a lavish palace on Black Sea was built for Putin through elaborate corruption has been watched more than 111 million times on YouTube since it was posted Jan. 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 and has said it has no evidence Navalny was poisoned.
While the high-profile arrest and the subsequent expose were a double blow to authorities, political analyst and former Kremlin speech writer Abbas Gallyamov said keeping Navalny and his activity off the airwaves to deprive him of additional publicity no longer makes sense.
"The fact that this strategy has changed suggests that the pro-government television audience is somehow receiving information about Navalny's activities through other channels, recognizes him, is interested in his work, and in this sense, keeping the silence doesn't make any sense," Gallyamov said.
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.
TV channels aired footage of empty squares in cities where protests were announced and claimed that few people showed up. Some reports portrayed police as polite and restrained, claiming officers had helped people with disabilities cross busy streets, handed out face masks to demonstrators and offered them hot tea.
Once the protests died down and Navalny ally Leonid Volkov announced a pause until the spring, Kremlin-backed media reported grassroots flash mobs titled "Putin is our president" started sweeping the country. State news channel Rossiya 24 broadcast videos from different cities of people dancing to patriotic songs and waving Russian flags, describing them as a genuine expression of support for Putin.
Several independent online outlets reported instructions to record videos in support of Putin came from the Kremlin and the governing United Russia party, and people featured in some of the recordings were invited to shoots under false pretenses.
The Russian president's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Kremlin had nothing to do with the pro-Putin videos.