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Monday, April 03, 2006

Author Richard Lourie Predicts Internet Crackdown

Writing in the Moscow Times, author Richard Lourie had this to say about Russia's prospects for democratic development as viewed throught prism of the Internet:

It's a safe bet that any restriction of the Internet anywhere will be done in the name of the highest and most inarguable values. Pravda.ru and Karikatura.ru have already had sites closed down for publishing the Danish cartoons of Mohamed that so offended Muslims worldwide. The deranged 20-year-old man who attacked worshippers in a Moscow synagogue fed his hate with poison from anti-Semitic web sites. As a multiethnic state Russia has a real and legitimate interest in preventing the fomenting of racist animosity, especially against Muslims, a significant percentage of the population. But just as Rodina was shut out of the Moscow City Duma elections for its racist video describing swarthy watermelon-eating types from the Caucasus as "garbage" (but really to weaken it politically), there will always be a hidden agenda behind the rationales of national security and ethnic harmony.

The essential thugishness of the Lukashenko regime was revealed in its actions against opposition candidates and newspapers when no action was required for Alexander Lukashenko to sweep the elections handily -- he's genuinely popular with a majority of Belarussians, and many Russians for that matter. But to some mindsets, any dissent is dissing. Something similar could well occur in Russia's elections for the State Duma in 2007 and for president in 2008. The recent beating of Marina Litvinovich, a top aide to Garry Kasparov, chess champion and presidential candidate, may prove an isolated incident or an omen of things to come. Whoever the Kremlin's hand-picked candidate for president is in 2008, he won't have the popular mandate that Vladimir Putin himself had in 2004. Tougher techniques than merely controlling television may be required. If there's any serious resistance, it is at that point that the Internet may start being censored in the name of national security.

It was recently revealed that William Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, Russia's largest foreign portfolio investor, was denied entry to Russia in November 2005 under a law barring entry to foreigners considered a national security threat. Redemption requests amounting to 3.4 percent of the Hermitage Fund's $4 billion were received after news of Browder's expulsion became public. Since Browder is an outspoken supporter of Putin and an outspoken critic of waste and lack of transparency in such giants as Gazprom and Surgetneftegaz, the question arises -- who's running the borders, the government or neftmen and gazsters?

In the end, the desire for money may keep Russia honest. To keep good trade relations with Europe, to stay in the Group of Eight and to gain entry into the WTO, Russia must restrain some of its more brutal authoritarian impulses, though the real problem may be a sort of dvoyevlastiye, or dual rule, with the government and big oil jousting for power. But due to its own addiction to oil and its own national security jitters, the West's moral resolve does not seem especially vigorous at the moment. By 2008, consultants from Google and other companies may be helping Russia filter the web, and American spin doctors may help explain why a few women bleeding on sidewalks do not, statistically, indicate a national trend. By that time the frequent description of Lukashenko as Europe's last dictator may seem an optimistic misnomer.

"Brutal authoritarian impulses" just about says it all. Lourie talks about Russia is though it were only a quasi-civilized state at best, with no genuine morality and capable of being motivated, if at all, only by bribery.

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