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

Lukashenka’s Ryanair Hijacking Proves Human Rights is a Global Security Issue

May 24 2021

The forced diversion and landing in Minsk of a May 23, 2021 Ryanair flight en route from Greece to Lithuania, and the subsequent arrest of dissident Roman Protasevich who was aboard the flight, by the illegitimate Lukashenka regime pose an overt political and military challenge to Europe, NATO and the broad global community.  NATO members must respond forcefully by demanding (1) the immediate release of Protasevich and other political prisoners in Belarus, and (2) a prompt transition to a government that represents the will of the people of Belarus. 

The West’s passivity in the face of massive, continuous and growing oppression of the Belarusian people since summer 2020 has emboldened Lukashenka to commit what some European leaders have appropriately termed an act of “state terrorism.”

The West has shown a manifest disposition to appease Putin’s regime —Lukashenka’s sole security guarantor. It has made inappropriate overtures for a Putin-Biden summit and waived  Nord Stream 2 sanctions mandated by Congress. These actions and signals have come against the backdrop of the 2020 Russian constitutional coup, the assassination attempt against Navalny and his subsequent imprisonment on patently bogus charges, the arrests of close to 13,000 Russian activists, and the outlawing of all opposition movements and activities. All this has led Putin and Lukashenka to conclude that they eliminate their political opponents with impunity.  

Today’s state-ordered hijacking of an international passenger airplane—employing intelligence agents aboard the flight,  and accomplished via an advanced fighter-interceptor—to apprehend an exiled activist, underscores that violation of human rights is not only a domestic issue, but a matter of international safety and security.  Western governments unwilling to stand up for the victims of Putin’s and Lukashenka’s regimes are inviting future crimes against their own citizens. 

Absent a meaningful and swift response, the escalation of violence and intensity of international crimes committed  by Lukashenka’s and Putin’s regime will continue, destabilizing the world and discrediting the Western democratic institutions. 

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS – THE KREMLIN’S INFLUENCE QUARTERLY

May 20 2021

The Free Russia Foundation invites submissions to The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly, a journal that explores and analyzes manifestations of the malign influence of Putin’s Russia in Europe.

We understand malign influence in the European context as a specific type of influence that directly or indirectly subverts and undermines European values and democratic institutions. We follow the Treaty on European Union in understanding European values that are the following: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Democratic institutions are guardians of European values, and among them, we highlight representative political parties; free and fair elections; an impartial justice system; free, independent and pluralistic media; and civil society.

Your contribution to The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly would focus on one European country from the EU, Eastern Partnership or Western Balkans, and on one particular area where you want to explore Russian malign influence: politics, diplomacy, military domain, business, media, civil society, academia, religion, crime, or law.

Each chapter in The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly should be around 5 thousand words including footnotes. The Free Russia Foundation offers an honorarium for contributions accepted for publication in the journal.

If you are interested in submitting a chapter, please send us a brief description of your chapter and its title (250 words) to the following e-mail address: info@4freerussia.org. Please put The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly as a subject line of your message.

Criminal operations by Russia’s GRU worldwide: expert discussion

May 06 2021

Please join Free Russia Foundation for an expert brief and discussion on latest criminal operations conducted by Russia’s GRU worldwide with:

  • Christo Grozev, Bellingcat— the legendary investigator who uncovered the Kremlin’s involvement, perpetrators and timeline of Navalny’s assassination attempt. 
  • Jakub Janda, Director of the European Values Think Tank (the Czech Republic) where he researches Russia’s hostile influence operations in the West
  • Michael Weiss, Director of Special Investigations at Free Russia Foundation where he leads the Lubyanka Files project, which consists of translating and curating KGB training manuals still used in modern Russia for the purposes of educating Vladimir Putin’s spies.

The event will take place on Tuesday, May 11 from 11 am to 12:30pm New York Time (17:00 in Brussels) and include an extensive Q&A with the audience moderated by Ilya Zaslavskiy, Senior Fellow at Free Russia Foundation and head of Underminers.info, a research project on post-Soviet kleptocracy

The event will be broadcast live at: https://www.facebook.com/events/223365735790798/

  • The discussion will cover Russia’s most recent and ongoing covert violent operations, direct political interference, oligarchic penetration with money and influence; 
  • GRU’s structure and approach to conducting operations in Europe
  • Trends and forecasts on how data availability will impact both, the Kremlin’s operations and their investigation by governments and activists; 
  • EU and national European government response and facilitation of operations on their soil; 
  • Recommendations for effective counter to the security and political threats posed by Russian security services. 

YouTube Against Navalny’s Smart Voting

May 06 2021

On May 6, 2020, at least five YouTube channels belonging to key Russian opposition leaders and platforms received notifications from YouTube that some of their content had been removed due to its being qualified as “spam, deceptive practices and scams”. 

They included: 

Ilya Yashin (343k YouTube subscribers)

Vladimir Milov (218k YouTube subscribers) 

Leonid Volkov (117k YouTube subscribers)

Novaya Gazeta (277k YouTube Subscribers) 

Sota Vision (248k YouTube Subscribers)

Most likely, there are other Russian pro-democracy channels that have received similar notifications at the same time, and we are putting together the list of all affected by this censorship campaign. 

The identical letters received from YouTube by the five account holders stated:

“Our team has reviewed your content, and, unfortunately, we think it violates our spam, deceptive practices and scams policy. We’ve removed the following content from YouTube:

URL: https://votesmart.appspot.com/

YouTube has removed urls from descriptions of videos posted on these accounts that linked to Alexey Navalny’s Smart Voting website (votesmart.appspot.com).

By doing this, and to our great shock and disbelief, YouTube has acted to enforce the Kremlin’s policies by qualifying Alexey Navalny’s Smart Voting system and its website as “spam, deceptive practices and scams”. 

This action has not only technically disrupted communication for the Russian civil society which is now under a deadly siege by Putin’s regime, but it has rendered a serious and lasting damage to its reputation and legitimacy of Smart Voting approach. 

In reality, Smart Voting system is not a spam, scam or a “deceptive practice”, but instead it’s a fully legitimate system of choosing and supporting candidates in Russian elections who have a chance of winning against the ruling “United Russia” party candidates. There’s absolutely nothing illegal, deceptive or fraudulent about the Smart Voting or any materials on its website.

We don’t know the reasons behind such YouTube actions, but they are an unacceptable suppression of a constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the Russian people and help the Kremlin’s suppression of civil rights and freedoms by banning the Smart Voting system and not allowing free political competition with the ruling “United Russia” party. 

This is an extremely dangerous precedent in an environment where opposition activities in Russia are being literally outlawed;  key opposition figures are jailed, exiled, arrested and attacked with criminal investigations; independent election campaigning is prohibited; and social media networks remain among the very few channels still available to the Russian opposition to communicate with the ordinary Russians.

We demand a  swift and decisive action on this matter from the international community, to make sure that YouTube corrects its stance toward Russian opposition channels, and ensures that such suppression of peaceful, legal  pro-democracy voices does not happen again. 

FRF Lauds New US Sanctions Targeting the Kremlin’s Perpetrators in Crimea, Calls for Their Expansion

Apr 15 2021

On April 15, 2021,  President Biden signed new sanctions against a number of officials and agents of the Russian Federation in connection with malign international activities conducted by the Russian government.

The list of individuals sanctioned by the new law includes Leonid Mikhalyuk, director of the Federal Security Service in the Russian-occupied Crimea.

A report issued by Free Russia Foundation, Media Initiative for Human Rights and Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union in December 202, identified 16 officials from Russian law enforcement and security agencies as well as the judiciary operating on the territory of the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula currently occupied by the Russian Federation. These individuals have been either directly involved or have overseen political persecution of three prominent Crimean human rights defenders – Emir-Usein Kuku, Sever Mustafayev and Emil Kurbedinov.

Leonid Mikhailiuk is one of these officials. He has been directly involved and directed the repressive campaign in the occupied Crimea, including persecution of innocent people on terrorism charges and massive illegal searches. The persecution of Server Mustafayev was conducted under his supervision. As the head of the FSB branch in Crimea, he is in charge of its operation and all operatives working on politically motivated cases are his subordinates. 

Within the extremely centralized system of the Russian security services, Mikhailiuk is clearly at the top rank of organized political persecution and human rights violations.

Free Russia Foundation welcomes the new sanctions and hopes that all other individuals identified in the report will also be held accountable.