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While No One Is Watching

There is a timeless bit of Russian folk wisdom that says you should prepare your sled in the summer and your cart in the winter. In accordance with this adage, now is the time for the Kremlin to be preparing for the 2011-12 national-election cycle that will install a new Duma and culminate in a presidential election. And there are plenty of signs that that is exactly what is going on.

For one thing, in March it was announced that Central Election Commission head Vladimir Churov had been assigned a shadowy former official from the presidential administration’s task force on domestic politics (“the managed-democracy team”) named Mikhail Berulava whose task is to “organize the process of forming new territorial and precinct [election] commissions for the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2011-12.” Considering that Berulava worked for the Kremlin for more than a decade (is he Dmitry Medvedev’s man, as the press speculated in March, or is he Vladimir Putin’s? Does it matter?), very little has been written about him over the years. The main thing I have been able to dig up is that he managed to get his father into the Public Chamber, supposedly as the representative of some grassroots organization called the Public Movement to Support the Policies of the President.

Second, as Power Verticalista Brian Whitmore wrote yesterday, the government has submitted legislation to the Duma that would allow the Federal Security Service to take “preventative measures” against individuals it suspects of “extremism.” Observers have been quick to note that from the government’s point of view, the main “extremists” in Russia are political opponents.

Even the loyal opposition in the Duma has come out strongly against the proposal -- A Just Russia Deputy Gennady Gudkov said it would revive “a Soviet-era practice that was used against dissidents” and so on. That is a fairly strong indicator that it is likely this fairly Draconian idea was floated so that Russia’s liberal president could come out against it. But it doesn’t really matter whether the law is adopted, since as Moscow Helsinki Group Chairwoman Lyudmila Alekseyeva told RFE/RL, “our FSB has already long ago moved beyond the framework of any law.”

Finally, the Russian version of “Newsweek” this week has a thorough rundown of the latest Kremlin moves regarding the Internet. (In addition to the bits mentioned below, the article has a nice graphic on who owns the runet and a summary of major anti-blogger legal cases over the last couple of years.)

It has been noted for some time now that the new media are increasingly setting a social and political agenda that runs counter to the narrative in the state-controlled media. For instance, former police Major Aleksei Dymovsky posted a scathing indictment of police corruption on YouTube late last year that fed a firestorm of criticism directed at the Interior Ministry. A video of veteran rocker Yury Shevchuk railing against the “brutal, cruel, and inhumane” system that has emerged in Russia went viral in March. An online petition calling for the release of former Yukos lawyer Svetlana Bakhmina last year was credited with helping secure her freedom. Russian drivers have kept their various protests alive via the Internet for ages now. Nearly 40,000 people have now signed on to an online petition calling for Putin’s resignation. And so on.

While none of this amounts to an existential threat to the ruling order, it clearly is a loose end that must be tidied up before election monitors descend to assess Medvedev’s democratic credentials.

“Newsweek” says the Kremlin realizes that it can’t adopt “the Chinese model” and crudely block Internet access. It also realizes it doesn’t need to. Instead, the administration is preparing some tried-and-true tactics. Managed democracy calls for a managed Internet, clearly.

The magazine reports that a bill is in the works that would equate blogs and individual Internet pages with mass-media organs, and make them subject to the same regulations that have largely defanged Russia’s traditional media.

Such anti-blogger legislation could fit in nicely with the proposed expansion of FSB powers. “Now the noise surrounding [the abuse of flashing lights on the cars of officials and state business executives] has the Kremlin more frightened than any terrorist acts,” an unnamed source close to the presidential administration told the weekly. “They all understand that the middle class, using Internet platforms, has completely broken loose.”

“Newsweek” also reports that the government is preparing to spend $100 million to create a Kremlin-controlled search engine. It is unclear whether that is a serious initiative or just a tactic to pressure current search engines operating in Russia to cooperate more freely with the authorities. The article gives many examples of Kremlin pressure on Yandex and cites an unnamed Yandex source as saying, “at Yandex people are just tired of getting calls from the Kremlin after the appearance of every bit of top news in the blogs.”

As Internet penetration in Russia keeps growing (it reached 20 percent last year, with 51 percent of urban residents over age 18 reporting they are online), it is clear that managing democracy without managing the Internet will become increasingly problematic. According to “Newsweek,” when cabinet minister came to Putin in 1999 with a proposal to bring online publications under the mass media law, Putin reportedly responded negatively and declared the Internet “a zone of administrative freedom.”

But that was then, and this is now.

-- Robert Coalson

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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