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

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.

Free Russia Foundation’s Press Release on Submission of Article 15 Communication to the International Criminal Court

Oct 06 2020

On 21 September 2020, the Free Russia Foundation submitted a Communication to the International Criminal Court Prosecutor’s Office (in The Hague, Netherlands) seeking accountability for Crimean and Russian authorities concerning international crimes perpetrated during Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea. The Communication was prepared in cooperation with Global Rights Compliance and Center for Civil Liberties and is based on a focused inquiry conducted over the past year. In our inquiry, we documented crimes as part of a systematic, planned attack by the Russian state against civilians and groups in Crimea in order to discourage them from opposing the illegal occupation of Crimea and to force their departure from the peninsula. Crimes against civilians included unlawful arrests, beatings, torture, enforced disappearances, and other inhumane acts causing severe mental and/or physical pain. In particular, the crimes targeted the Crimean Tatars, a native ethnic group who had only recently returned to their homeland, having previously been forcefully and brutally displaced by the Soviet Union in 1944.

One of the principal coercive acts was the illegal detention and concomitant violence before, during, and after the imprisonment of political prisoners. Most of those detained were arrested by Russian and Crimean authorities on terrorism charges, but it was their legal, pro-Ukrainian advocacy that led to their imprisonment. In addition, trials of those arbitrarily detained were conducted in wholesale disregard of their fair trial rights. For example, some of those illegally imprisoned were denied a speedy trial, access to independent lawyers, and the opportunity to defend themselves against their arrest in a courtroom.

In order to force those illegally detained to confess to crimes they did not commit, Russian and Crimean authorities also perpetrated acts of torture and cruel or degrading treatment, the levying of additional charges against them, even more inhumane prison conditions, denial of communications with their families and threats made against them, enforced disappearances, and even, in at least one case, a mock execution.

Other inhumane acts include “punitive psychiatry” and the denial of adequate prison conditions, including the following: (i) feeding people inedible food or, at times, no food at all; (ii) facing severe overcrowding in prisons; (iii) denial of regular water supply; (iv) threats of assault against them by prison cellmates; and (v) adding pork to food – prohibited for observant Muslims. Further, medical attention was systematically inadequate or denied for many individuals.

Concerning acts of torture, it was perpetrated by different Russian authorities, including the FSB. Allegations include the use of electric shocks in an effort to get an accused to confess. One was beaten in the head, kidneys, arms and legs with an iron pipe. With another, fingers were broken. Still another endured spinal bruises and having a plastic bag placed over his head to the point of unconsciousness. Further, threats of sexual violence against a detained man were made. Murder as well. Hands were broken, teeth were knocked out in still another.

Trials were largely held behind closed doors for illegitimate reasons, and many of the witnesses were secret not only to the public but also to the Accused. Further, credible allegations exist that, at times, there were FSB or other agents in the room, silently instructing witnesses what to say and how the judges should rule. This adds credence to words, according to the Kyiv Post, heard by Arsen Dzhepparov from a senior FSB lieutenant who stated “I will prove by all possible – and impossible – means that [an Accused is] guilty – even if he isn’t guilty”.

Concerning the crime of persecution, nearly all of these deprivations of fundamental rights were carried out with discriminatory intent. Specifically, these groups were targeted due to their political view – namely, by peacefully opposing the illegal occupation of their country. Some were targeted on ethnic grounds or religious grounds on the basis of their Crimean Tatar background.

War crimes, another group of crimes punished at the ICC, were also perpetrated in addition to or in the alternative to the crimes against humanity. This includes the crime of torture, outrages against personal dignity, unlawful confinement, wilfully depriving protected persons of the rights of a fair and regular trial, and the transfer of the occupying power of parts of its population into the territory it occupies or the deportation of all or parts of the population of the occupied territory within or outside this territory.

All these crimes had the ultimate objective of the criminal enterprise – the removal of pro-Ukrainian elements out of Crimea and the annexation of Crimea into the Russian Federation without opposition, including the installation of pro-Russian elements, which include the emigration of more than 70,000 Russians, the illegal imposition of Russian law in the occupied territory, forcing Russian nationality on many Crimeans, and the appropriation of public property.

Ultimately, we hope that all the information gathered by the ICC in the context of its preliminary investigation will lead the ICC to investigate mid- to high-level Russian and Crimean officials on this basis. The international community expects responsible global leadership that follows the rule of law and expects it – no matter the situation – to be respected, especially from a state that is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. When this fails to happen, the international community must demand accountability. We hope that an investigation can be opened and responsible officials of the Russian Federation will be investigated. After an investigation that conforms to international best practices, responsible persons should be charged with the systematic perpetration of international crimes.

Novichok Use Implicates Putin’s Government in Navalny’s Poisoning

Sep 02 2020

Today, the German government has announced that Russian pro-democracy leader Alexey Navalny was poisoned by Novichok. Novichok is a deadly nerve agent developed by the Soviet government chemical weapons program and used on several occasions by the Russian government to kill its critics in the recent years.

To restate the obvious, Novichok is a poison that can only be accessed with the authority of the Kremlin. Therefore, today’s announcement by German officials  directly implicates the Kremlin and Putin in the high-profile assassination attempt on Navalny.

The choice of Novichok was not just a means  to silence Mr. Navalny, but a loud, brazen and menacing message sent by Putin to the world: dare to criticize me, and you may lose your life.

The announcement by the German government of its intent to formally notify the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (‘OPCW’) of the use of Novichok against Navalny is a meek bureaucratic half-measure that fails to acknowledge the extraordinary threat to human life posed by Putin’s regime everywhere. Taken together with Angela Merkel’s promise earlier this week to help Putin finish his Nord Stream 2 pipeline despite an international outcry amounts to condoning the poisoning and normalizing it into a new modus operandi where Putin’s murders go unpunished. Free Russia Foundation urges the leaders of the EU, its Member States and the U.S. Government to take an urgent and drastic action to punish the perpetrators of this heinous crime not only to serve justice, but to establish a powerful deterrent against new attacks by Putin’s regime globally.

Free Russia Foundation Statement on Kremlin’s Interference in Elections in Georgia

Aug 26 2020

We are deeply concerned with information recently distributed by the well-respected authoritative source Center “Dossier.” According to “Dossier,” the Kremlin is using Russian political expert Sergey Mikheev and consulting company “Politsecrets” to manipulate Georgian society, distribute disinformation and anti-democratic narratives, undermine Georgia’s Western aspirations, and interfere in free and fair elections in Georgia scheduled for October 2020.

More

Free Russia Foundation Calls for Investigation into Alexey Navalny’s Poisoning

Aug 20 2020

Free Russia Foundation is gravely concerned about the life and safety of Alexey Navalny. More