NEW YORK -- Sergei Kuznetsov, who founded one of Russia's first blogs in the early 1990s, was recently approached with an offer from a company affiliated with the Kremlin.
The company, whose name he did not reveal, presented a budget of millions of rubles to be used exclusively for public relations in the world of Russian blogs. Kuznetsov had the influence and the technical skills, and the government evidently had the interest.
Kuznetsov's situation is not unique in today's Russian Internet, or RuNet.
The second fastest-growing national cyberspace in the world, it has nearly 4 million blogs and counting -- which means an increasing opportunity for dissenting voices and pluralism of opinions.
But the co-opting of prominent bloggers and leaders of online-based political movements exemplifies the Kremlin's use of "soft," or indirect power to counter the Internet's democratizing potential, says Robert Saunders, a member of russian-cyberspace.org, an online scholarly research group focusing on the Russian Internet.
He joined Kuznetsov and others at a daylong conference on the state of Russian blogs at Columbia University in New York City.
"You've got this concept of 'Authoritarianism Version 2.0.' Russia does not want to look like it's controlling the Internet -- at all," Saunders says. "So they have some level of protection, some level of censorship, some level of monitoring, but the Kremlin always tries to keep it sort of in line with what Germany is doing, what the United States is doing -- they're just doing a little bit more of it.
"But what the Russians are really excelling at is sort of pushing nongovernment actors, nonstate actors to get out there on the web and make their voices heard and shout down the others, and so this is where the real sophistication comes -- always being at arm's length from these actors."Freedom Of Choice, Up To A Point
Closely related to the blog is the forum, which also allows users to post comments on various topics.
Perhaps the most well-known example of forum-based political activity in Russia is the case of Oleg Shcherbinsky. The Siberian railway worker was sentenced to four years in prison when he failed to avoid the speeding car of Altai Governor Mikhail Yevdokimov, causing it to crash. Yevdokimov died in the accident.
Support for Shcherbinsky was rallied on the forum pages of Svoboda Vybora (Freedom of Choice), a nationwide movement of car owners. Their campaign spoke out against the disregard for driving rules shown by government officials, and eventually led to Shcherbinsky's sentence being overturned.
Sergei Kuznetsov was offered a deal to work for the Kremlin's interests.
As Svoboda Vybora grew in influence, however, the Kremlin caught on, says Floriana Fossato, who recently completed a study of the Russian Internet at Oxford University in England.
"After 2005, the leader of this organization, who had been co-opted into some kind of structure of power as an adviser to a State Duma committee, was all the time undermining the potential of the organization to have protests," Fossato says, "so the organization changed its nature from a protest organization, as it advertised on its website, to something that is much more embedded in government structures -- which is maybe not a bad thing because they give very important advice and they create very important civil policies, for instance on the necessity of driving with a safety belt, but they don't protest on major things as they were [doing] before."
According to Fossato, there were a number of cases after Shcherbinsky in which pedestrians were killed by officials' cars. Despite a push by regional chapters of Svoboda Vybora to publicize them, the organization's leadership refused, and they never gained national exposure.
The neo-authoritarianism of Russian society at large, Fossato says, is being replicated in the world of blogs and forums. Nonparticipatory Participation
However, the success of the Shcherbinsky case remains, and according to Saunders, it does speak to the possibility of Russia's participatory Internet producing some change:
"In areas where change can be effected, the blogosphere is going to be a tool for actually achieving this," he says. "[In] certain areas, there are going to be red lines drawn. These are no-go zones, and even if you go there, you're not going to have any impact, so I think on a sort of grassroots level with smaller issues, yes, it can be effective. Is it going to bring down a regime? Is it going to create a 'color' revolution in Russia? Absolutely not -- not in the near term and I doubt in the long term either."
According to Saunders, the general lack of response in the blogosphere to the recent presidential election is a case in point: Why even speak up if the government's Internet proxies will shout you down?
What emerges is a participatory Internet in which independent participation is discouraged. The voices that are not turned away tend to become marginalized, groups of differing opinion become more isolated, and soft power is at work, Fossato says.
"In the Russian Internet, there isn't, by and large, censorship. But a soft approach [of] manipulation so far has been preferred. This approach gives a dual advantage. Of course, when somebody from the West comes saying, 'oh, you are enforcing censorship,' you say, 'no, look!'" she notes.
"The soft-power approach is fantastic in this way, but also, the second [advantage] is that manipulation and not censorship effectively diffuses the attraction of political activity among the people."
According to Saunders, if the United States is a 1 in terms of restricting its participatory Internet, then China is a 7 and Turkmenistan is a 10. Ukraine, post-Orange Revolution, is closer to the democratic end of the spectrum than Russia, which is a 4 or a 5.
But despite the Kremlin's use of soft power, he says, Russia's blogs and forums are still freer than its television and radio.