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Friday, March 14, 2008

Bovt on the Internet

Russian radio talk show host Georgy Bovt on the fate of Russia's Internet under Medvedev, from the Moscow Times:

The Russian blogosphere showed a lot of activity during the presidential election campaign. The only part of the pre-election televised debates to generate universal interest among bloggers was when Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky scuffled with a representative of rival candidate Andrei Bogdanov. If it were not for this heated exchange, most bloggers might never have known that there were debates at all.

Medvedev's victory inspired a great many jokes and caricatures -- some good-natured and others not. The most popular was a redub of a scene from the popular Soviet-era comedy "Prisoner of the Caucasus, or the New Adventures of Shurik." In this classic film, there is a scene in a restaurant in which a Caucasus local convinces the naive Shurik, a Muscovite college student on vacation in the region, to take part in the "ancient custom of stealing the bride."

In the Internet redub, young Shurik is "Dima" (Medvedev). The schemer convinces Dima to take part in the "ancient custom" of selecting the next president in which Dima will play the main role. Dima, who is told that he was selected by Putin himself to become the next leader of the country, is introduced to the three other spoof candidates and is told that they have absolutely no chance of winning. It seemed as if everyone on the Russian Internet saw the clip within a day of its appearance.

Russia's blogs increasingly serve as alternative sources of information to the mainstream media, which is becoming more restricted in what they can say or write about the Kremlin.

But the media crackdown has also been extended to the blogosphere as well. For example, authorities have already initiated criminal proceedings against several bloggers in a town in the Komi republic and other regional cities on grounds of inciting interethnic or racial hatred or of extremism, which is defined and interpreted very broadly by law enforcement officials. New legislation makes it possible to label any critical commentary of federal or regional authorities as extremism.

The Russian blogosphere is truly becoming more courageous, offering its own take on events as an alternative to the official line. In other words, it is becoming a political liability. More than 20 million Russians actively use the Internet, and of those, 3.5 million actively participate in blogs -- 2.6 times more than last year. Russia's blogosphere is more concentrated than in other countries, with 75 percent of all blogs located on one of five web sites:,,, and hosts the most blogs, but no more than 20 percent are updated regularly. More than 7,000 new blogs and 210,000 entries appear on the Russian Internet every day.

It is not surprising, then, that politicians are considering plans to regulate the Internet. This involves more than simply filing criminal charges of extremism against individual bloggers as a scare tactic and a warning to others. It means direct regulation. A bill was recently drawn up that would have required every blog with more than 1,000 visitors per day to register with the authorities. Officials later shelved that bill due to technical flaws, but the concept is still popular in the Kremlin and among State Duma deputies.

The Kremlin seems to be moving toward the Chinese model, in which the government denies citizens access to anything other than officially approved web sites. This trend is bound to continue unless Medvedev decides to reverse its course. Personally, I do not anticipate such a thaw in the Kremlin's cold attitude toward the Internet, if for no other reason than because Medvedev has always paid close attention to the Internet, and he has never underestimated its ability to mobilize citizens against the ruling elite.

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