Siloviki vs. Cyberspace
Sovereign Democracy vs. Social Networking
The Vertical vs. The Horizontal
There's been plenty of material on the tubes over the last week marking the ten-year anniversary of Vladimir Putin's rise to power.
But the piece that really caught my eye was a commentary titled "Two Anniversaries
" by Igor Yakovenko, which was published this week in "Yezhednevny Zhurnal." (h/t to Paul Goble over at Window On Eurasia for this post
that brought it to my attention.)
Yakovenko, the general secretary of the Russian Journalists' Union, notes that Putin's rise a decade ago coincided with the establishment of the blog Live Journal, which has since become a sounding board and platform for a wide range of political opinion and commentary. Live Journal's appearance, Yakovenko argues, was the true beginning of the Internet era in Russia.
Over the past ten years, as Putin and his team siloviki have been painstakingly building their authoritarian power vertical, and justifying it with the ideology of sovereign democracy, Yakovenko says a quiet counter-revolution has been gathering steam below the decks:
Putin's 'vertical' has cut itself off from the population by eliminating elections and erecting a border between itself and the population...a border much more effective than the state borders of the Russian Federation. As a result, the population has begun to build their lives and channels of communications independent of the authorities. They have begun to build their 'horizontal.'
The building blocks of the horizontal have evolved over time -- from Live Journal to Facebook to Twitter and Skype -- allowing like-minded Russians to stay informed, network with each other, and remain plugged into a global culture.
Yakovenko says the horizontal's battle against the vertical often "looks ridiculous" -- like "David fighting Goliath or Guttenberg challenging the church's monopoly on the truth." But he adds that when the vertical looks at the horizontal "it always sees its imminent death."
For most of the past decade, the Kremlin has concentrated most of its censorship efforts on controlling the macro narrative -- meaning television -- while largely leaving the Internet (and even a lot of print media) alone. Who cares if a few malcontents in Moscow vent their frustration online, they reasoned, as long as we control the airwaves -- and the masses.
But the role Twitter and Facebook played in the recent Iranian and Moldovan elections appears to be causing a rethink. And the first big target seems to be Skype and other Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone services.
Late last month, the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs warned
that Skype and other foreign VoIP services are a threat to national security (and their corporate profits), in part because they are resistant to eavesdropping by the intelligence services:
Without government restrictions, IP telephony causes certain concerns about security. Most of the service operators working in Russia, such as Skype and Icq, are foreign. It is therefore necessary to protect the native companies in this sector.
There is little doubt that the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs was working hand-in-glove with the authorities. The union has established a working group with the ruling United Russia party to draft legislation to safeguard against the risks posed by Skype and other VoIP services.
With the economy tanking, living standards eroding, and citizens getting restless, the last thing the authorities need is a for people to be Skyping and Tweating their discontent until it snowballs into uncontrollable social unrest.
And in case efforts to prevent cyber-discontent from turning into street action fail, the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi recently announced plans
to form militias, made up of disadvantaged teenagers armed with stun guns, to patrol Russia's streets to quell potential unrest.
-- Brian Whitmore