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Friday, February 22, 2008

Russia's Blogophere, Tilting at Windmills

The Associated Press reports:

In the final weeks of Russia's presidential election, the three major TV networks and much of the media are filled with uncritical and often fawning coverage of the man President Vladimir Putin has blessed as his successor. Some of Russia's bloggers, however, have been sharply critical of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and the presidential contest he seems certain of winning.

One blogger named "lekka_reka" said an old lady asked him on the street: "Have they named Medvedev president yet or will we be able to actually go out and cast our votes?"

A blogger named "YUGva" was worried about Medvedev's liberal image. "This Medvedev is a strange personality, a dark horse," YUGva wroe. "Like my relatives, I think he's just going to skip out on Russia, sell it to America and the West — and everyone is openly lauding his arrival?"

The postings by Russia's Web commentators, professionals and amateurs alike, are sometimes barbed, frequently satirical and always unfiltered — a marked contrast to most of Russia's major media, where many reporters, editors and producers are wary of incurring the Kremlin's wrath. During Putin's eight years in office, the Kremlin has extended and strengthened its control over the news media, mainly through the purchase of national broadcasters and major newspapers by state-controlled corporations or loyal billionaires. Anyone interested in probing reporting or frank commentary has few places to turn. Increasingly, relatively savvy Russians are turning to the Internet. "The propaganda on TV doesn't work for anyone anymore," said Oleg Panfilov, a journalist advocate who is also a regular blogger.

The Internet's uncontrolled nature has long worried the Kremlin. Parliament's upper house is considering legislation that would make Web sites with more than 1,000 readers daily subject to the same regulations as print media. And some Web advocates fear a newly updated law on publishing allegedly extremist literature could be used to prosecute bloggers critical of authorities. There are also allegations the Kremlin has organized teams of bloggers to attack or rebut critics of the government through Web postings. But Stanislav Belkovsky, an analyst with the Moscow think-tank National Strategy Institute, said these pro-Kremlin bloggers have little influence. "No one's interested in people who write the same thing as you can read in the pro-Kremlin newspapers," he said.

Communicating across Russia — which spans 11 time zones — has always been difficult, and Russian leaders have long relied on television to reach the nation's widely scattered communities. Russian television has provided intensive — and to many boring — coverage of Medvedev's speeches and official appearances at schools, churches, factories and other institutions for more than a year, as it has done for Putin. But on the Web, news consumers can find spicier fare. A recent search for Medvedev or Putin on a Russia's dominant blogging and social networking site, LiveJournal, pulled up a hubbub of humorous postings, satire, opinion, links to news stories, insults and counter-insults.

One blogger from Vladivostok sought to organize a boycott of March election under the banner: "I'm not participating in this farce." Another from St. Petersburg, who took the name "dark cloud_os," wrote that a monarchy would suit Russia better than democracy.

Yet another, named "niagara1977," said that reading an obituary would have been more interesting than listening to a recent Putin speech.

Putin is enormously popular, and even some journalists are angered when he is sharply questioned. Yet even before Putin had finished the last news conference of his term on Feb. 14, the Russian blogosphere was scoffing at some of his remarks. "President Putin has told us that we are satisfied with his work," wrote one blogger by the name of "vla3986." "If you include ripping off the country until you can't any more as his work, then that's been done many times over."

Another blogger, who called himself "dmitrydmitryev," wrote: "I wanted to watch Putin's news conference but I happily slept throught it. For the best, probably!"

Still, Russian political blogs don't appear to be as popular or influential as they are in the United States. Partly that's because of the Kremlin's near monopoly on political power in Russia. The Web's influence is also restricted because access is limited. The phone system is antiquated, meaning connections are slow. Internet service is difficult to find in poorer provinces and personal computers are still a luxury.

Candidates in the U.S. are battling in a cliffhanger presidential contest. With the Kremlin's political weight behind him, Medvedev is all but certain of winning the March 2 vote.

"Everyone understands that this is a fiction," said Rustem Adagamov, who writes a wide-ranging, popular blog under the moniker "other." "Everyone knows the outcome ahead of time."

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