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Russia: Joining The Cybertimes, But Slowly

Ekaterinburg, Russia; 20 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Russian businesses, media and educational institutions are increasingly turning to the World Wide Web, joining a new communications revolution in a world no longer defined by geographical and ideological boundaries.

Last week more than 80 Russian journalists and Internet operators met with American specialists at a major conference in Ekaterinburg, the economic capital of Russia's Ural region, to discuss the latest developments.

The three-day "New Media For A New World" conference was organized by the local branch of the National Press Institute (NPI) with the support of a newly-created Internet Center of the Ural State University and with financing from USAID and the Open Society Foundation of American financier and philanthropist George Soros.

Elena Pimenova heads NPI's Internet-media service, which supports programs in more than 40 Russian cities. She told RFE/RL that NPI is seeking to reach journalists interested in the Internet throughout Russia.

The Ekaterinburg conference attracted journalists from not only Moscow or the Far East, but also from Ural regions (Ekaterinburg, Perm, Chelyabinsk, Kurgan, Orenburg), central Siberia, St. Petersburg and the republics of Bashkortostan, Udmurtya and Komi .

The Russian media have only recently started realizing the information and business possibilities that the Internet can provide. There is no reliable data on the number of Internet users in Russia, but the Russian Non-Profit Center for Internet Technologies, which promotes the Internet in the country, estimates that there are now about 600,000 wired Russians. The Center estimates that this number doubles every year.

The growth has been hampered by Russia's antiquated telecommunications and the relatively high price of computers and connectivity. Less than 20 out of every 100 people in Russia have telephones. In many regions, people are inscribed on years-long waiting lists before having a regular telephone installed. This creates major difficulties for the diffusion of the Internet.

Telecommunication operators and experts say that Russia's telecom infrastructure is unsuitable for modern communications. It is not expected to reach Western standards for many years. But they also say that the development of wireless, satellite-based communications may help Russia to develop and make available to a growing number of users new satellite Internet channels.

But the Internet is only slowly spreading among media and educational institutions. Several projects are currently under way to make Internet connections available to university and media establishments nationwide.

The Soros Foundation is providing $100 million to create Internet centers for 33 Russian institutions of higher education. The Russian government is to set up telecommunication links between them and existing Internet Service Providers. Ekaterinburg University, whose Internet center opened in August this year, is the tenth such establishment to take advantage of the program.

In Ekaterinburg, Russian and American lecturers focused on the experiences that international media, particularly those in America, have had on the Web, emphasizing practical steps needed to use Internet resources not only as a tool for information exchange, but also for advertising and commercial purposes.

This subject was of particular interest for the participants. Observers say that the growth of the Russian Internet reflects the realization of its commercial potential for the media, financial traders and banks to exchange business communication.

"Having our Web site is not only a question of prestige for us, it is our future" says Dmitry Surnin, the deputy editor in chief of the most popular paper in the Siberian town of Tomsk, a former center of Russia's military-industrial complex. Surnin's independent "Tomskaya Nedelya" is a 32-page weekly publication with a circulation of 55,000. The majority of its readers are under 35 years of age. It features community news, health, sports and entertainment. It has at least four pages of advertising, but not a single page on national political or economic subjects.

"The real problem is the kind of Web advertisement one wants to attract and how to obtain it," says Konstantin Kanterov, deputy executive editor at Novosibirsk's daily "Novaya Sibir." The paper has a circulation of 8,000 and prominently features political, business and financial articles.

Jean Edwards, national on-line advertising manager for the American Knight- Ridder publications, said at the conference that "it is not enough to put a media product on line" to attract readers and advertisement. She emphasized that computer and marketing specialists and "content producers" must work together to create interactive Web sites to attract readers who are seen by advertisers as potential buyers.

Oleg Vyushin, head of the Novosibirsk-based "Internet-initiative" that is trying to expand the use of on-line advertisements on the Web pages of several media in this Siberian town, said the main drawback is that businesses in Russia's regions "simply don't understand why they would need Web advertising, since they spend the majority of their advertising resources in television adverts." Vyushin said that "the regional scene is still largely underdeveloped."

Aleksandr Gruntsev, whose U.S.-based company "Russian Story" distributes online some of Russia's major periodicals in full-graphic and full-text format, said the situation has improved. Gruntsev is planning to launch a virtual Russian book shop and noted that "two years ago Internet talk was only concerning servers and technicalities. The debate on on-line media and advertising is only starting now, but will surely develop quickly."

For the moment, said another participant, "Internet is giving Russian central and regional media the possibility to go international."