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In Russia, A Vibrant Platform For Politics Thrives On Encrypted Telegram Messenger

MOSCOW -- As Russia tried to take the moral high ground after Ukraine this week banned a raft of Russian social-networking and news sites, some Russians saw a ray of hope concerning their own Internet worries -- namely the clouds gathering over the popular messenger app Telegram.

The Vedomosti newspaper this week reported the app -- which allows rapid, encrypted messaging between users as well as encrypted voice calls -- may soon be blocked by the Russian authorities. But while several messengers, including Blackberry Messenger, have been banned this month, the suggestion that Telegram was being targeted seemed at odds with the burst of rhetoric coming out of Moscow following Ukraine's actions.

Deputy Communications Minister Aleksei Volin ridiculed Kyiv's "short-sighted" ban of Russian social networks and media outlets, saying Moscow would be watching as Ukrainians download VPNs and "anonymizers" to bypass it. Within hours, Russian state TV was telling viewers how to circumvent attempts to block website access.

As international rights groups amplified the disapproval over Ukraine's ban, some Russians took to social networks suggesting that the harsh reaction in Moscow to Kyiv's action may have made it difficult for Russia to carry through with any attempts of its own to block app access.

"It would be nice to think that [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko has saved Telegram from being blocked with his idiotic act," wrote photojournalist Yevgeny Feldman.

The angst among active Russian Telegram users -- who the company said numbered 6 million in January, rising threefold in the space of a year -- reflects the niche the app has carved out in the constellation of online platforms for private and public discussion.

While the authorities have maintained a grip on traditional media, social and political conversation has flourished online, migrating over the years between social networks, blog platforms, and most recently taking off on the video-sharing site YouTube. Notably, the video channel of opposition leader and Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny has racked up more than 1.1 million subscribers as he eyes a presidential run in Russia's 2018 election.

Telegram was launched in 2013 by Russian brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov, who moved abroad after alleging that another of their brainchildren -- the country's largest social network, VKontakte -- had been taken over by pro-Kremlin forces.

Aside from encrypted messaging and calls, the Telegram app allows users to subscribe to channels or feeds authored by other users -- leading to the proliferation of unrestricted blogs run by journalists, news sites, analysts, and others.

The most enigmatic of the political channels is the popular, but anonymous Nezygar feed that has gained more than 37,500 subscribers and posts political news and supposed insider (Nezygar does the posting; not the subscribers) snippets on anything from the mood in the Kremlin to the clan affiliations of various politicians.

The identity of its author is shrouded in intrigue, with state TV in January declaring (only to be proven wrong) that they had finally unmasked the author. The channel's name, Nezygar, combines the Russian negative "not" with the surname of Mikhail Zygar, the former chief editor of the liberal Dozhd TV and author of All The Kremlin's Men, which looks into President Vladimir Putin's inner circle.

Oleg Kashin, a prominent Russian journalist whose Telegram channel has just shy of 10,000 subscribers, told RFE/RL in comments on Facebook that "Telegram really has become an important political platform," a charge led by channels like Nezygar.

"With the emergence of Nezygar (we don't know who this is, but it is a brilliant media inspiration, the birth of a form and genre), a whole stratum of political channels have appeared that are free of any of the media's restrictions," he said. "That's why [Telegram] is used effectively both by the authorities and by its enemies for dumps, leaks, and manipulations, and this is already a real phenomenon."

Commenting on the popularity of its encrypted messenger function, Kashin added, "With conversation, it's all entirely simple -- there are no other popular analogues to Telegram with its secret chats and other security."

The Telegram messenger app thrives even in the most closed environments -- such as in Iran, where millions use it without fear of Tehran's efforts to monitor conversations.

Ban Threat

On May 16, citing sources, the Vedomosti business daily reported that the telecoms watchdog Roskomnadzor had threatened in a letter to block Telegram if it did not comply by mid-June with a law requiring services to register with the state and ultimately make their data accessible to it.

In comments to the news site RNS, Telegram rejected any cooperation with the state outright, saying: "No government or special service has ever received a single bit of information from us. That's how it will remain forever."

A petition defending Telegram was soon posted on May 16 to generate media attention around the issue with the aim of "initiating discussion before the block, and not afterward."

Meanwhile, Roskomnadzor spokesman Vadim Ampelovsky declined to comment on the Vedomosti report, which he called "rumors," saying he would only comment on a news event like the registration of a service, or its blockage.

"This is a continuation of the Russian authorities' pressure on social networks," says Oleg Kozyrev, Moscow-based new media analyst. "There are attempts to close specific communities online and entire social networks and these attempts have long been observed."

"We also need to take into account that Telegram has recently gained popularity with political activists and journalists for talking to each other," he says. "This channel of communication definitely alarms the Russian authorities."

A blog for the Tinkoff bank, which called Telegram the place "where the whole of progressive humanity communicates," recommended businesses that use the Telegram application branch out to reduce their dependence, should the ban go into effect.

Kashin, however, expressed doubt the authorities would actually try to shut down Telegram. "I don't believe they can close it now -- it's technically difficult and unnecessary politically. The closure of Telegram has more significance in its current form -- as a threat."