A Victory for the Net in Russia
Perhaps the biggest story to emerge from Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Russia is the central role played by new media. To be sure, the failure of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party to obtain a solid majority in the State Duma, even while cheating, is significant. But the Kremlin-approved parties that profited from the antigovernment protest vote—the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, the Communist Party, and the faux-opposition A Just Russia party—appear unlikely to stimulate reform. The election results thus reflected deep disillusionment with Putin, but utterly failed to provide a road map to future change.
On the other hand, new media and information technology—blogs, camera-equipped mobile phones, YouTube, Twitter—clearly influenced the outcome and continue to fuel the resulting protests. To begin with, these media platforms provide an alternative to the regime-controlled broadcast sector. Domination of the traditional media’s commanding heights has been a central feature of Putin’s strategy for political control. Russian television regularly features Putin as both political leader and virile man of the people, part of an effort to create a cult of personality. The opposition is rarely covered at all. The internet, meanwhile, has been allowed more freedom to carry antigovernment views, perhaps because of a perception that it has only a marginal influence on popular opinion. The vast majority of Russians still get most, if not all, of their news from state-controlled television stations. Or at least they did, before December 4, 2011.
The prominence of new media grew significantly thanks to the numerous amateur videos showing apparent election fraud that were posted on a YouTube channel entirely dedicated to documenting such abuses during the Duma balloting. These videos, along with related posts on other sites, received a stunning number of views; some garnered over 1 million hits, which is truly extraordinary for online media in Russia. Here are three frequently viewed examples of blatant cheating during the Duma elections:
1. An amateur election monitor shows a stack of ballots, found in a ballot box, that seem to have been filled out all at once and inserted together (1,409,349 views as of December 8).
2. Amateur journalists document vote buying at a Moscow polling station (1,007,586 views as of December 8). This video reports that a group of people were paid 1,000 rubles ($32) each to vote for United Russia.
3. The head of an election committee is caught on video apparently filling out a stack of ballots for United Russia at his desk in Moscow polling station No. 2501 (1,811,884 views as of December 8).
It is worth noting that over the past several years, various government officials have begun to speak of the need to “control” the internet. Just this week, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov quashed an effort spearheaded by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to put the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on record as opposing internet censorship. We can expect further calls for internet controls in the future, especially if regime opponents ratchet up the volume of criticism in advance of the presidential election in March.
Meanwhile, Putin has already dispelled any hopes that setbacks to his popularity might produce some reflection, humility, and a new posture toward the outside world. The upsurge of protests that followed the reports of election fraud provoked a tried-and-true response: blame the United States. In this case the target was Secretary Clinton, who had put forward an unusually blunt statement about the unfree and unfair Russian polling. “She set the tone for some in our country and gave them a signal,” Putin declared. “They heard the signal, and with the active support of the U.S. State Department, began active work.”
The fact that Clinton made her statement well after the protests had begun, and after OSCE vote monitors had released a scathing preliminary report, was, it seems, an unimportant detail for Putin.
Kremlin-aligned spinmeister Sergei Markow made remarks that should qualify him for the hall of fame of political cynicism. “The protest mood is very widespread,” Markov admitted to the New York Times. “Especially in Moscow and Petersburg, people are broadly convinced that there was falsification.” He then added that Russians are skeptical of the usefulness of street protest. “In Russia, people are strongly convinced that if there are protests, then nothing good will come out of them.” Russian officials will thus treat the protesters like a complaining child. “The authorities will attempt to conduct themselves with society as a parent would a child who is crying and demanding some kind of toy. In this case, it is not correct to go out and buy the child a toy, but rather distract him with something else.” As the Times notes, blaming America for interfering with Russia’s “sovereignty” could be that something else. We should all hope they have nothing more adventurous in mind.
Overcoming Russian skepticism will be a major challenge as protest organizers attempt to win the hearts and minds of the broader population. However, it should be emphasized that the public’s doubts center on the usefulness of protests, not on their justification. In fact, widespread skepticism, directed at the government and its claims, could work in the opposition’s favor. There is a growing belief among even non–politically active citizens that United Russia is, as the antigovernment slogan puts it, a “party of crooks and thieves.” The uncensored online revelations of election fraud have only reinforced that impression. Now that a groundswell of popular frustration has burst the dikes of poll rigging and media management and spilled into public view, more ordinary Russians may be willing to add their voices to the protesters’ demands.
* Arch Puddington is vice president for research at Freedom House. Katherin Machalek is a research analyst for Nations in Transit.