Technology: A means of strengthening democracy in Russia?

Jun 17 2016

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.

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 4.00.24 PM

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

 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.

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 4.00.24 PM

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

Free Russia Foundation Calls for Urgent and Concrete Steps to Stop Putin’s Global Assassination Campaigns

Feb 11 2021

Vladimir Kara-Murza, a prominent Russian pro-democracy advocate, was closely tracked by an FSB assassination squad when he suffered perplexing and near-fatal medical emergencies that sent him into coma in 2015 and 2017, establishes a new investigation by the Bellingcat group

Documents uncovered by Bellingcat show that this is the same assassination squad implicated in the August 2020 assassination attempt on Alexey Navalny and whose member has inadvertently confirmed the operation in a phone call with Navalny.   

Bellingcat has also established the FSB unit’s involvement in the murder of three Russian activists, all of whom died under unusual but similar circumstances. 

Taken together, these independent nongovernment investigations establish the fact of systemic, large-scale extrajudicial assassinations carried out by Putin’s government against its critics inside and outside of Russia, including with chemical weapons banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention. 

Free Russia Foundation calls on the international community to formally investigate and prosecute Putin’s government for these crimes. 

Free Russia Foundation calls on the Biden Administration to direct the FBI to release investigation materials surrounding the assassination attempts against Vladimir Kara-Murza that have been denied to him thus far. 

Free Russia Foundation calls on the international community to articulate measures to compel Russia to free Alexey Navalny from his illegal incarceration where his life remains in dire danger. 

Free Russia Foundation condemns in strongest terms today’s court sentence announced to Alexey Navalny

Feb 02 2021

Continued detention of Navalny is illegal and he must be freed immediately. Suppression of peaceful protests and mass arrests of Russian citizens must stop, and the Kremlin must release all those illegally detained and imprisoned on political motives. Free Russia Foundation calls on the international community, the US and European leadership, to move beyond expressions of concern and articulate a set of meaningful instruments to compel the Kremlin to stop its atrocities.

Free Russia Foundation demands Navalny’s immediate release

Jan 17 2021

On January 17, 2021, Putin’s agents arrested Alexey Navalny as he returned to Russia from Germany where he was treated for a near-deadly poisoning perpetrated by state-directed assassins.

Navalny’s illegal arrest constitutes kidnapping. He is kept incommunicado from his lawyer and family at an unknown location and his life is in danger.

Free Russia Foundation demands his immediate release and an international investigation of crimes committed against him by Putin’s government.

The European Court of Human Rights Recognizes Complaints on Violations in “Ukraine v. Russia” as Admissible

Jan 14 2021

On January 14, 2021, the European Court of Human Rights published its decision on the case “Ukraine v. Russia”. The Grand Chamber of the Court has recognized complaints No. 20958/14 and No. 38334/18 as partially admissible for consideration on the merits. The decision will be followed by a judgment at a later date.

The case concerns the consideration of a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights related to Russia’s systematic administrative practices in Crimea. 

The admissibility of the case is based on the fact that, since 2014, the Russian Federation has exercised effective control over the territory of Crimea, and, accordingly, is fully responsible for compliance with the norms of the European Convention on Human Rights in Crimea. The Court now needs to determine the specific circumstances of the case and establish the facts regarding violations of Articles of the Convention during two periods: from February 27, 2014 to March 18, 2014 (the period of the Russian invasion); and from March 18, 2014 onward (the period during which the Russian Federation has exercised effective control over Crimea).

The Court has established that prima facie it has sufficient evidence of systematic administrative practice concerning the following circumstances:

  • forced rendition and the lack of an effective investigation into such a practice under Article 2; 
  • cruel treatment and unlawful detention under Articles 3 and 5; 
  • extending application of Russian law into Crimea with the result that, as of  February 27, 2014, the courts in Crimea could not be considered to have been “established by law” as defined by Article 6; 
  • automatic imposition of Russian citizenship and unreasonable searches of private dwellings under Article 8; 
  • harassment and intimidation of religious leaders not conforming to the Russian Orthodox faith, arbitrary raids of places of worship and confiscation of religious property under Article 9;
  • suppression of non-Russian media under Article 10; 
  • prohibition of public gatherings and manifestations of support, as well as intimidation and arbitrary detention of organizers of demonstrations under Article 11; 
  • expropriation without compensation of property from civilians and private enterprises under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1;
  • suppression of the Ukrainian language in schools and harassment of Ukrainian-speaking children under Article 2 of Protocol No. 1; 6 
  • restricting freedom of movement between Crimea and mainland Ukraine, resulting from the de facto transformation (by Russia) of the administrative delimitation into a border (between Russia and Ukraine) under Article 2 of Protocol No. 4; and, 
  • discriminating against Crimean Tatars under Article 14, taken in conjunction with Articles 8, 9, 10 and 11 of the Convention and with Article 2 of Protocol No. 4 to the Convention.

Cases between states are the rarest category considered by the ECHR. Almost all cases considered in Strasbourg concern individuals or organizations and involve illegal actions or inaction of the states’ parties to the Convention. However, Art. 33 of this Convention provides that “any High Contracting Party may refer to the Court the question of any alleged violation of the provisions of the Convention and its Protocols by another High Contracting Party.” In the entire history of the ECHR since 1953, there have been only 27 such cases. Two of them are joint cases against Russia, both of which concern the Russian Federation’s aggression on the territory of its neighboring states, Georgia and Ukraine.

New Year’s Blessings to All

Dec 30 2020

While 2020 gave us unprecedented challenges, it created transformative changes in the way we work and communicate. The hours of Zoom calls seemingly brought us all closer together as we got a glimpse into each other’s makeshift home offices along with interruption by kids and the family pets. Remote work also made us appreciate human interactions, in-person events and trips much more!

As 2020 comes to an end, we want to especially thank our supporters who continued to believe in our mission and the value of our hard work, and we hope the coming year brings all of us progress and growth for democracy throughout the world. We’d also like to thank our partners and staff in the U.S. and abroad, and we know how hard everyone has worked under difficult world changes to achieve so many of our objectives this year.

We send our best wishes to all who have stayed in the fight for democratic reforms and for the values of basic human rights. We look forward to a new year with the hope of many positive changes to come.

– Natalia Arno and the Free Russia Foundation team.