For So Many Reasons, Eyes on Russia

March 1, 2012

Russia Protest
An opposition activist holds a one man protest in front of the Russian Central Election Commission headquarters in Moscow, on March 1, 2012. The sign reads: "stop the dictatorship!" (NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images)

The Russian Federation has had an unenviable place in the news of late. With the outrage over the government’s disastrous and unconscionable opposition to meaningful UN Security Council action on Syria, to Amnesty’s recent findings that Russian weapons continue to supply the machine of misery unleashed on the people of Darfur and Sudan, it would be easy to be blinded to the risks to rights protection in Sunday’s Presidential election.

Last Saturday, thousands rallied in St. Petersburg in opposition to Vladimir Putin’s decision to run for a third presidential term, chanting “Russia without Putin.” On Sunday, over 30,000 people organized together to create a human chain spanning 15.6 kilometers in length throughout Moscow in solidarity over growing discontent over the election.

Russian lawyer, blogger, anti-corruption campaigner, and political activist, Alexei Navalny, gives the international community reason to believe that it may not be “business as usual” for the upcoming elections. The rising discontent will likely lead an increase in the scope of mass protests in the coming days, especially after the election.

Navalny, whom coined the popular phrase describing Putin’s United Russia “Party of Crooks and Thieves,” has a following of roughly 60,000 readers on his Live Journal blog Mass Complaints Machine and over 199,000 followers on Twitter. What is of particular interest here is not Navalny’s politics, but that Navalny’s utilization of social media to organize the Russian opposition to mobilize, an effort that is not possible via Russian state-owned media sources.

Internet and Mobile Connectivity in Russia

In 2012, Russia has grown to become one of the most connected — in terms of both internet and mobile connectivity — countries in the world according to data from World Bank. Today, more than 70 percent of Russian Internet users had established a profile on a social networking site. In 2011, there were 18.6 million blog service users and the active monthly audience for social networks in Russia totaled 43.6 million users. According to World Bank data, in 2010 Russia ranked 7th in Internet accessibility and 11th in mobile cellular subscriptions when compared internationally. While television is completely state-controlled, activists have utilized social media to mobilize the opposition.

Protesters will likely not be the only ones to utilize social media to shape discourse. During the December protests, Pro-Kremin supporters used botnets to disseminate pro-government tweets using the hashtag #триумфальная, in reference to Triumfalnaya Square, the location of the protests. This “Twitter bombing”—with many messages generated by Twitter accounts that had little prior activity—may be just one attempt to silence speech, albeit through a flood of digital chatter, rather than traditional heavy- handed suppression of speech.

The December protests resulted in hundreds of arrests, including Navalny, who was arrested for 15 days

Spring time in Russia?

The next week will be a pivotal moment in Russian history. More so than any previous election in Russia, people are connected and mobilizing in the digital space to exercise their voice. At the same time, freedom of expression is at grave risk throughout Russia. From laws aimed to silence LGBTI people, “slander” charges against activists, to “systematic threats and harassment” of journalists, Sunday’s election carries with it great risk to peaceful assembly, expression, and human rights in general.

With a slew of new digital policies across the globe, and a clear desire by many regimes to control the digital space as a means of controlling the public discourse, the risk we’ll be monitoring has a strong digital component. And this weekend, and the days after, eyes will be on Russia…eyes on the virtual space, and eyes on Triumfalnaya Square.

Follow Scott on Twitter @sxedwards

Jenee Sharon contributed to this post