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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- The Internet And National Integration

Prague, 13 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Residents of Siberia and the Russian Far East now go online at far higher rates than do Russians living anywhere else, a pattern which could have a profound impact on the future integration of the Russian Federation.

According to polling data released at a Moscow Internet conference on Friday, one-quarter of the regular Russian users of the Internet live in Siberia and the Russian Far East, even though that region accounts for significantly less than 10 percent of the country's population.

On the one hand, this statistic should come as no surprise. People living in isolated areas around the world increasingly are turning to the Internet both for entertainment and to keep in contact with the larger world.

But on the other hand, it is striking because it is at variance with the typical pattern of technological diffusion in Russia and also because these numbers could increasingly represent a serious obstacle to Moscow's efforts to reintegrate the country.

Up to now, most Western and Russian observers have assumed that Moscow and, to a lesser extent, St. Petersburg, do and will dominate the Internet market just as these two cities dominate many other aspects of Russian life.

But in fact, speakers at the Friday conference suggested, there are no more regular Internet users in the two capitals than there are in Siberia and the Far East, even though there are now far more people living in these two cities than in that enormous region.

Moreover, the poll on Internet use conducted by ExactData Research found that 55 percent of Russia's Internet users live in cities with fewer than one million people, that a significant number live in small towns or rural areas, and that many of these are located beyond the Urals.

Because the Internet offers its users the opportunity to transcend geography, to link themselves with people or groups who live far away from where they do, this new technology may either help to promote national integration or make it far more difficult.

Indeed, many of those who now go online in Siberia and the Russian Far East may find that experience tying them ever closer to Moscow in particular and the Russian Federation as a whole, particularly if they visit Moscow web sites such as those featuring central newspapers.

But the Internet may also have just the opposite effect precisely because it shows so little respect for traditional state boundaries and identities. And there is at least some evidence that the Internet may be playing that kind of role in parts of Siberia and the Russian Far East.

Perhaps the clearest indication of this comes from Sakha-Yakutia, a republic the size of most of Western Europe located in the north of the Russian Far East.

In January, the government there made English a compulsory subject in the schools and one of the working languages for official government functions. Sakha President Mikhail Nikolayev said on Jan. 6 that such a step was necessary "given the intensification of planetary interstate communication, broad adoption in the international practice of high information technologies, and given the quest of Yakutia for integration into the world economic community."

English has been the predominant language on the Internet up to now. That is beginning to change. But to the extent that Sakha residents learn English and use the Internet, they are ever more likely to identify themselves with the nearby Pacific rim states than with far-away Moscow.

None of this means that Sakha is about to secede, but it does mean something perhaps equally important. The people of that republic may increasingly be drawn into a wider world not dominated by Moscow. And as a result, they are likely to demand that Moscow take that into account.

Moreover, if the central Russian government tries to ignore this new focus of identity, Moscow may provoke the very kind of nationalism that it hopes to avoid. In that case, the Internet will have once again demonstrated its ability to upend traditional political arrangements.