Technology: A means of strengthening democracy in Russia?
On Friday, June 10th, experts in Washington discussed the possibility of strengthening civil society and democratic institutions, which are existent but weak in today’s Russia, through technological entrepreneurship.
It wouldn’t be the first time Russia has used technology to further a political agenda. In the days of communism, the many advances in technology made by the Soviet Union were used by the Communist Party to promote their system of government as optimal as opposed to the democratic, capitalist West.
Technology is a well-known, well-respected, and popular field in Russia. Under the Soviet Union, engineering and the sciences were widely pursued because of state censorship limiting the humanities in education. And it paid off in tangible accomplishment as the Soviet Union put the first satellite, man, and woman in space. Even today Russia is at the forefront of technology as Pavel Durov invented Vkontakte, a social media website wildly popular in the CIS.
Could the history, nostalgia, and potential surrounding this field of study energize and mobilize the Russian people to demand the Kremlin to change policy?
To a certain extent, it already did. Up until 2012, when large protest marches were frequently happening in Russia’s biggest cities, internet freedom was considerably strong. While TV news was and still is mostly pro-Kremlin, the internet presented an alternative and mostly free outlet for anti-Putin Russians. Since 2012, however, free access to certain websites has been restricted, blacklists and even criminal investigations carried out due to anti-government social media posts.
Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist from Russia, explained that while the situation is bleak, it may not get too much worse. The methods used by Kremlin-linked authorities are losing their effectiveness as methods to circumvent these blocks are increasingly effective and popular. For instance, when a file-sharing site in Russia was shut down, the number of Russians using torrents skyrocketed and watered down the effects of the censorship considerably.
Greater methods of censorship have been considered by the Kremlin, even so much as extending it to operate like China’s “Great Firewall”, but the plans never went through.
So what can be done to energize anti-Putin Russians through technology?
Some methods already exist. Oleg Kozlovsky, the founder of the Vision of Tomorrow Foundation, praised Facebook as its ubiquity has been very effective in organizing protests without the Kremlin bothering to investigate. And the political will to ban Facebook and websites like it simply doesn’t exist right now, he explained. “It’d only get more people to use the circumvention tools,” tools which are widely available. Even dissidents who are harassed by pro-Kremlin thugs such as Aleksei Navalny are able to fight back.
Kozlovsky also lightened the mood when he told the audience about a time when Navalny’s website got attacked by Kremlin authorities. Navalny and his team decided to fire back and found a way. When a second Kremlin attack came on the website, users were redirected to a picture of a “pink cartoon pony”.
As it turns out social media is not the only relatively new invention that has become an outlet for the opposition, he went on to explain. Messaging apps on cellphones, such as FireChat, or Telegram, which was invented by Vkontakte creator Pavel Durov, have started to worry Kremlin authorities as well, according to Anton Merkurov.
Another great example is Movements.org – a crowdsourcing platform that connects dissidents in closed societies with individuals around the world with skills to help. This powerful combination provides those fighting for human rights in dictatorships with the expertise they need to strengthen their voice. For instance, the platform was actively used during #FreeSavchenko campaign.
Obstacles still exist. Russians across the country overwhelmingly depend on news from television, which is almost exclusively pro-Kremlin. If there is to be a shift against Putin’s United Russia party, it will only come about if there is outreach to Russians outside the big cities which are largely ignored by the pro-democracy movement. Russia is a country of 150 million people, but unfortunately most news developments within the pro-democracy opposition happen in two cities: Moscow and St. Petersburg. There’s a lot more Russia out there.
Ilya Shumanov summed it up by saying that “There are two different Russias, essentially. There are those who are well-traveled and tech-savvy and aware of the world around them, and those who stick to the news on TV and do not leave the country, and are set in their ways.”
While Putin’s approval rating remains extremely high, Anton Merkurov was quick to point out that “Many Russians, especially older Russians, are very nervous about the future”. Previous conferences with members of the opposition such as Ilya Ponomarev, the exiled Duma deputy, reiterated these statements, as well as the lack of a plan that the Kremlin seems to have in regards to the sputtering economy.
In this circumstances, the technologies and the new ways of communications will definitely become a bridge to share the truth with a larger part of the population and the tool for empowerment of civil society activists to drive Russian society towards democratic change.
by Kyle Menyhert,
columnist of Free Russia Foundation