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Russia’s Second Life Democracy

At a “modernization forum” in Yaroslavl on September 10, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev once again linked the role technology could play in the development of Russian democracy.

After speaking about the five principles of democracy -- prosperity, rule of law, security of citizens, cultural development, and individual freedoms -- he spoke about "direct democracy":

The times when the 'leaders' told the so-called 'common people' how and why to live are over. It was in the 20th century, under the slogan of the 'common man', that the worst dictatorships were created. I am sure that the 21st century will be an educated, intelligent epoch - if you prefer, that of the 'complex' person who disposes of his or her abilities as they see fit, who does not need leaders, patrons or others to make decisions for him. But there must be a smart government, smart society and clever policies.

Thanks to unprecedented access to knowledge and communication, we are reaching a new level of democracy. I already had the chance to discuss this today. It is evident that not only indirect or representative democracy are in store for us, but also immediate or direct democracy, democracy where people will be able to instantly convey what they want and achieve concrete results.

When asked a question by an audience member, Medvedev talked directly about the Internet's role in all of this:

“Public opinion on most crucial issues is being found out today via informal voting” and Internet discussions, he said. As proof of his claim, the head of state - known for his passion for modern electronic gadgets - read out comments that were sent by Internet surfers while the meeting was underway. In real time, bloggers were giving their opinions on the issues that the president was discussing with political scientists.

There have been a few good recent examples of this type of direct democracy in action, what you might call a Pop Idol-ization of politics.

For instance, a new political talk show, Duel, allows viewers to vote by text message to decide who wins the debate. Then, there’s the new police law, which was posted on the Internet, for citizens to comment on. And Russian politicians have been signing up in their droves on Twitter, after Medvedev urged them to engage citizens on social networks. What next, elections held via Chatroulette?

My colleague and Power Vertical blogger, Robert Coalson, has also noticed a trend, albeit a small one, recently in the pro-Putin blogosphere to start describing Russia as a “plebiscitary regime.”

In terms of the Kremlin’s optics, though, direct-democracy-via-Internet seems like a win-win. Internationally, Russia looks progressive in terms of utilizing new/social media (Medvedev might even get invited back to Twitter). Domestically, with their leaders only a tweet away, it gives people at least the impression that they’re taking part in a democratic process.

That taps into an old strand of thought in Russia, where the tsar was fundamentally decent and it was the corrupt mid-level officials who were to blame for everything. That belief carried into Soviet times, with the practice of writing letters to the Communist Party’s general-secretary to complain about corrupt local officials. The “direct democracy” concept also fits neatly into Russian exceptionalism and the partial rejection of representative democracy (read, Western), which is commonly held responsible for the turmoil and extremes of criminal capitalism in the 1990s.

The broader point -- and the one most relevant for this blog -- is Russia’s increasingly sophisticated control of the Internet (forget filtering and spying on users in cybercafes). As Ronald Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski wrote in a recent chapter on the Russian Internet, “control strategies tend to be more subtle and sophisticated and designed to shape and affect when and how information is received by users, rather than denying access outright.”

Instead of restricting web access, the authorities are rather choosing to compete in cyberspace: getting politicians to tweet, building up a cadre of pro-regime bloggers, paying unaffiliated bloggers to attack an out-of-favor politician, developing a “sovereign Internet” with national search, Cyrillic domains, and a government email project.

Semi-authoritarian countries like Russia might also calculate that allowing web dissent is actually advantageous as it serves as a useful pressure valve. Vent on Twitter/YouTube, post an angry comment on a government website, and go back to your clerk’s job at a state-run bank the next day. What happens in Second Life stays in Second Life.

The link between web activism and out-on-the-streets activism is still unclear, but one possible reason the Iranian authorities didn’t pull the plug on the Internet during last year's postelection unrest, might have been because all that online activism, all those green avatars, might have actually relieved the pressure on the streets.

The United States Institute of Peace recently came out with an excellent report, “Blogs And Bullets,” which critically assesses the “cyberutopian” and “cyberskeptic” perspectives on new media and democracy. From the outset, the report makes the point that the impact of new media on democracy is still unclear, as much of the evidence is still fragmentary and anecdotal.

But one sentence, in the section on how new media can affect individuals, stuck with me: “new media could make citizens more passive, by leading them to confuse online rhetoric with substantial political action, diverting their attention away from productive activities.”

Cyberspace is remarkably free in Russia, especially compared with state-dominated broadcast and print media. And there is a lot of good grass-roots activism on the web in Russia. But rather than the Internet being democracy’s enabler, it could also be one of its biggest loopholes, allowing a parallel discourse and parallel process, one that’s lively and diverse, but ultimately a sham.