Virtual Protests in Russia “Dispersed” by Government-Controlled Yandex

Apr 22 2020

On Monday, April 20, 2020, numerous virtual protests took place throughout Russia, including several cities with populations of over a million of inhabitants.

The cyber-rallies were fueled by citizens’ dissatisfaction with the measures adopted by the Russian authorities in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Protesters published notes and messages on the map of the Yandex.Navigator app, concentrating on the cities’ main squares and government office buildings. Messages were published through the Yandex.Navigator “Talks” function, which is normally used by drivers to report traffic accidents and other traffic-related issues.

Virtual protest in Rostov-on-Don

The first virtual protest originated in Rostov-on-Don, in response to the announcement by local authorities of a strict pass system for moving within the city amid the coronavirus spread. After Rostov, similar rallies popped up in Moscow where thousands of residents left messages geotagged to the Red Square and around the Kremlin; in St. Petersburg, Voronezh, Nizhny Novgorod, Ufa, Orenburg, Krasnoyarsk, Yekaterinburg, Kazan, Krasnodar and other cities.

Online-protest in Moscow (screenshot from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndoiT9DaM2M)

Angry citizens demanded relief payments and other benefits from the government, called for the government to declare a state of emergency in the country, pleaded for deferrals or forgiveness for utility bills, loans and mortgages. “Where are our taxes? It’s time to return them back!!!”,“There is no work, the money has run out, Putin – how am I supposed to feed my children?/…/”

Demands for a declaration of an emergency regime and disbursement of social payments were some of the most frequent themes. Protesters also called for Putin’s resignation and for the dissolution of the government, expressed dissatisfaction with the inadequate actions taken by the authorities to contain the spread of the epidemic: “Putin has betrayed citizens, left us without money, work or hope”, “Stop stealing!”, “Shame on the government that can only ban and punish.”

One of the last messages posted on the “Talks” platform before Yandex turned off the comments feature was at 11:56 pm and originated in St. Petersburg: “This is horrible! Putin holds Russia in contempt.”

“Talks” comments from the website probkatalks.ru

To estimate the volume of posts on Yandex.Navigator during the virtual protests, we tracked and recorded metrics at 10 pm Moscow time. The average publication rate at that time was approximately 62 messages per second, which amounted to approximately 224,000 messages per hour. We can assume that the number of posts was even higher during peak hours.

Yandex’s reaction to cyber-protests was swift. Some participants began noticing that their messages had been deleted. Yandex blocked the ability to post near the Red Square in Moscow; messages pinged to the Palace Square in St. Petersburg were deleted; and all critical messages were deleted in Yekaterinburg. By midnight, “Talks” messages update had been disabled, with the last message published at 11:56 pm. Yandex justified these actions saying that the protest messages violated the app’s rules, which allow users to only publish traffic-related information.

On April 21, 2020 the following message appeared on probkatalks.ru portal which aggregates posts from “Talks”: “Unfortunately, data collection has been suspended, the feed is no longer being updated.”

In its official press release, Yandex said that “ moving forward the service would automatically limit post attempts for locations not corresponding to the location of their author.”

Yandex is the highest-valued IT company in Russia, and the most-used search engine (with 55% of the market), which also provides additional online services such as news, emails, blogs, music service, etc. In 2019, after a protracted standoff with the Kremlin, Yandex was forced to sell of a “golden share” to the government-controlled Public Interest Foundation along with a veto power over a host of governance functions and business deals.

According to a report by The Project, following the Russian military aggression against Georgia, the President’s Administration designated Yandex as a company of strategic importance. At least one Yandex.News service executive has been provided with direct secure phone line to the office of the President’s Administration. Since then, The Project reports, government officials have established continuous oversight and review of algorithms of news aggregation. The government has advised Yandex on which media outlets to include and which to omit from its scanning. This resulted in the reduction of Yandex approved media sources from 7,000 to 1,000. Due to the pressure from the Kremlin, Yandex discontinued some of its popular services such as Blogosphere Pulse, which analyzed and presented informational trends, and the Rating of Blogs, which featured Navalny and other government’s critics in Top 10. According to The Project’s sources inside the President’s Administration, the Kremlin raised concerns about Yandex.Talks back in 2012-2013, and mandated Yandex to start moderating messages.

Nevertheless, the virtual protest format has gained traction in Russia and has since been adopted by the organizers of the “NO!” campaign against amending the Russian Constitution. The initiators have already scheduled an event on their YouTube channel for April 28 at 6:00 pm Moscow time.

by Dmitry Valuev

The cyber-rallies were fueled by citizens’ dissatisfaction with the measures adopted by the Russian authorities in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Protesters published notes and messages on the map of the Yandex.Navigator app, concentrating on the cities’ main squares and government office buildings. Messages were published through the Yandex.Navigator “Talks” function, which is normally used by drivers to report traffic accidents and other traffic-related issues.

Virtual protest in Rostov-on-Don

The first virtual protest originated in Rostov-on-Don, in response to the announcement by local authorities of a strict pass system for moving within the city amid the coronavirus spread. After Rostov, similar rallies popped up in Moscow where thousands of residents left messages geotagged to the Red Square and around the Kremlin; in St. Petersburg, Voronezh, Nizhny Novgorod, Ufa, Orenburg, Krasnoyarsk, Yekaterinburg, Kazan, Krasnodar and other cities.

Online-protest in Moscow (screenshot from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndoiT9DaM2M)

Angry citizens demanded relief payments and other benefits from the government, called for the government to declare a state of emergency in the country, pleaded for deferrals or forgiveness for utility bills, loans and mortgages. “Where are our taxes? It’s time to return them back!!!”,“There is no work, the money has run out, Putin – how am I supposed to feed my children?/…/”

Demands for a declaration of an emergency regime and disbursement of social payments were some of the most frequent themes. Protesters also called for Putin’s resignation and for the dissolution of the government, expressed dissatisfaction with the inadequate actions taken by the authorities to contain the spread of the epidemic: “Putin has betrayed citizens, left us without money, work or hope”, “Stop stealing!”, “Shame on the government that can only ban and punish.”

One of the last messages posted on the “Talks” platform before Yandex turned off the comments feature was at 11:56 pm and originated in St. Petersburg: “This is horrible! Putin holds Russia in contempt.”

“Talks” comments from the website probkatalks.ru

To estimate the volume of posts on Yandex.Navigator during the virtual protests, we tracked and recorded metrics at 10 pm Moscow time. The average publication rate at that time was approximately 62 messages per second, which amounted to approximately 224,000 messages per hour. We can assume that the number of posts was even higher during peak hours.

Yandex’s reaction to cyber-protests was swift. Some participants began noticing that their messages had been deleted. Yandex blocked the ability to post near the Red Square in Moscow; messages pinged to the Palace Square in St. Petersburg were deleted; and all critical messages were deleted in Yekaterinburg. By midnight, “Talks” messages update had been disabled, with the last message published at 11:56 pm. Yandex justified these actions saying that the protest messages violated the app’s rules, which allow users to only publish traffic-related information.

On April 21, 2020 the following message appeared on probkatalks.ru portal which aggregates posts from “Talks”: “Unfortunately, data collection has been suspended, the feed is no longer being updated.”

In its official press release, Yandex said that “ moving forward the service would automatically limit post attempts for locations not corresponding to the location of their author.”

Yandex is the highest-valued IT company in Russia, and the most-used search engine (with 55% of the market), which also provides additional online services such as news, emails, blogs, music service, etc. In 2019, after a protracted standoff with the Kremlin, Yandex was forced to sell of a “golden share” to the government-controlled Public Interest Foundation along with a veto power over a host of governance functions and business deals.

According to a report by The Project, following the Russian military aggression against Georgia, the President’s Administration designated Yandex as a company of strategic importance. At least one Yandex.News service executive has been provided with direct secure phone line to the office of the President’s Administration. Since then, The Project reports, government officials have established continuous oversight and review of algorithms of news aggregation. The government has advised Yandex on which media outlets to include and which to omit from its scanning. This resulted in the reduction of Yandex approved media sources from 7,000 to 1,000. Due to the pressure from the Kremlin, Yandex discontinued some of its popular services such as Blogosphere Pulse, which analyzed and presented informational trends, and the Rating of Blogs, which featured Navalny and other government’s critics in Top 10. According to The Project’s sources inside the President’s Administration, the Kremlin raised concerns about Yandex.Talks back in 2012-2013, and mandated Yandex to start moderating messages.

Nevertheless, the virtual protest format has gained traction in Russia and has since been adopted by the organizers of the “NO!” campaign against amending the Russian Constitution. The initiators have already scheduled an event on their YouTube channel for April 28 at 6:00 pm Moscow time.

by Dmitry Valuev

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.

International Criminal Court Asks for Full Probe Into Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Dec 14 2020

On December 11, 2020, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Fatou Bensouda, issued a statement on the preliminary examination of the situation in Ukraine by the ICC Office of the Prosecutor.

According to the findings of the examination, the situation in Ukraine meets the statutory criteria to launch an investigation. The preliminary examination of the situation in Ukraine was opened on 24 April 2014.

Specifically, and without prejudice to any other crimes which may be identified during the course of an investigation, Office of the Prosecutor has concluded that there is a reasonable basis at this time to believe that a broad range of conduct constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity within the jurisdiction of the Court have been committed in the context of the situation in Ukraine.

These findings will be spelled out in more detail in the annual Report on Preliminary Examination Activities issued by the Office and include three broad clusters of victimization:

1.     crimes committed in the context of the conduct of hostilities;

2.     crimes committed during detentions;

3.     crimes committed in Crimea.

These crimes, committed by the different parties to the conflict, were sufficiently grave to warrant investigation by Office of the Prosecutor, both in quantitative and qualitative terms.

Having examined the information available, the Prosecutor concluded that the competent authorities in Ukraine and/or in the Russian Federation are either inactive in relation to the alleged perpetrators, or do not have access to them.

The next step will be to request authorization from the Judges of the Pre-Trial Chamber of the Court to open investigations.

The Prosecutor urges the international community, including the governments of Ukraine and Russia, to cooperate. This will determine how justice will be served both on domestic and the international level.

We remind you that on September 21, 2020, Free Russia Foundation sent a special Communication to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (the Hague, the Netherlands) asking to bring Crimean and Russian authorities to justice for international crimes committed during the Russian occupation of Crimea.

Comment by Scott Martin (Global Rights Compliance LLP):

As Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda reaches the end of her tenure as Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, she announced yesterday that a reasonable basis existed to believe that a broad range of conduct constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed in relation to the situation in Ukraine. One of the most consequential preliminary examinations in the court’s short history, the Prosecutor will now request authorization from the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber to open a full investigation into the situation.

Anticipating that the Prosecutor’s request will be granted, the ICC Prosecutor’s office will be investigating the second group of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Russian Federation (the situation in Georgia being the other). This would make Russia the only country in the world facing two separate investigations at the ICC for crimes under its jurisdiction.

Call for Submissions – The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly vol. 3

Oct 26 2020

The Free Russia Foundation invites submissions to The Kremlins 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 Kremlins 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 Kremlins 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.