Russia blocks opposition leader's website after he refuses to remove videos about a Kremlin-connected oligarch

Russia blocks opposition leader's website after he refuses to remove videos about a Kremlin-connected oligarch
Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny published an investigation claiming a Russian Cabinet member received lavish hospitality from Oleg Deripaska, a tycoon who has been linked to President Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. (Jean-Francois Badias / Associated Press)

Russia began blocking opposition leader Alexei Navalny's website on Thursday after the country's communications regulator threatened to shut down access to YouTube and Instagram if the social media sites did not remove the anti-corruption crusader's posts on a Kremlin-connected oligarch.

The oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, was featured in Navalny's latest anti-corruption investigation video posted last week on the opposition activist's YouTube and other social media accounts.


The video, which has had more than 5 million views, focuses on meetings between Deripaska, an aluminum and mining tycoon, and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko on Deripaska's yacht.

Navalny's video claims Deripaska used the meetings with Prikhodko to brief the Russian Cabinet member on information he had received from Paul Manafort, President Trump's campaign chief during the 2016 U.S. election.

The investigation draws on the tell-all book and Instagram account of Nastya Rybka, a 21-year-old model and escort. Rybka, whose real name is Anastasia Vashukevich, said the men paid her for her company.

"An oligarch takes a top government official on a ride on his own yacht — that's a bribe," Navalny said in a video. "An oligarch pays for all of this, including young women from escort agencies. Believe it or not, that is also a bribe."

Deripaska filed a lawsuit against Vashukevich in Ust-Labinsk, a city in southern Russia's Krasnodar region, where the tycoon pays taxes.

The Washington Post last year reported that Manafort, who previously had business dealings with Deripaska, offered to give the oligarch briefings on Trump's campaign. Deripaska has denied receiving Manafort's offer. Manafort was indicted in October by the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election campaign.

Russia's communication regulator, Roskomnadzor, on Feb. 9 ordered YouTube and Instagram to remove material related to the Navalny investigation. Roskomnadzor gave the social media companies until Feb. 14 to block the material from their sites. If they did not comply, the regulator said it would completely block the sites in Russia.

Navalny's team said it received an email from the legal team at YouTube, which is owned by Google, on Tuesday, stating that the campaign must comply with the request from Roskomnadzor and remove the content from Navalny's channels.

"OKAY GOOGLE, what about freedom of speech?" tweeted Oksana Baulina, a member of Navalny's team.

The YouTube content about Deripaska remained accessible Thursday after Navalny's website was blocked in Russia. However, Instagram on Feb. 15 complied with Russia's order and removed the related material from its site.

The federal regulator's order also requires any Russia media organization to remove the content from its websites. Many news websites have complied by removing links to the video.

Navalny last year launched a bid to run against Putin in the March 18 presidential election. Navalny's campaign rallies across the country have drawn thousands of supporters, many of whom were young and closely following his YouTube channel's corruption investigations and weekly shows.

Although it is widely expected that Putin will win a fourth term, the Kremlin has been rattled by the turnout at several Navalny-organized anti-corruption protests across the country.

The Russian central election committee has banned Navalny from registering his campaign, citing a 2013 bribery conviction that the opposition leader said was politically motivated.


Twitter: @sabraayres

Ayres is a special correspondent.