Russian Politics Moves Online: The Empire Strikes Back

By Khatuna Mshvidobadze

Copyright © 2012 Potomac Institute for Policy Studies

Russia’s State Investigative Committee has charged anti-corruption blogger Aleksei Navalny with embezzlement, adding politically motivated bloggers to the categories of Russian citizens to be imprisoned, beaten and even killed.  Russia’s new blogiticians may have embarrassed Russian President Vladimir Putin during Duma and presidential elections last December and March, but now the empire is striking back.

Denied access to Russian television, Navalny has, nonetheless, grown famous with his LiveJournal anti-corruption blogsite and Rospil.info, which tracks government procurements.  He has dubbed the ruling United Russia Party “the party of swindlers and thieves.”  He had apparently irked folks in the Kremlin to the point that they unleashed their irregular army of cyber criminals and youth-group hackers against LiveJournal and Rospil.info during the spring of 2011.

When charges of traditional and electronic election malfeasance were leveled at the government last winter, Navalny was catapulted onto the political stage—literally—addressing the hundred thousand plus protestors that jammed Moscow streets.  That earned him a 15 day slap-on-the-wrist jail sentence for obstructing traffic.

Released from prison, Navalny headed to the Caspian Sea city of Astrakhan to weigh in on a disputed mayoral election.  There, he was accused of vandalism against a Putin campaign office.  “Even the investigator smiled,” an opposition politician who accompanied Navalny told Gazeta.ru, “but she said she was given this case.”

Obstruction of traffic, a few days in jail, even a DDoS attack are one thing.  But the embezzlement charge could land Navalny in the Gulag for ten years.  The original accusation from 2009 was that he had given bad financial advice to a state-owned timber company in Kirov, resulting in a $30,000 loss.  The matter has been investigated and dropped three times, twice in the Kirov Oblast and once in the Volga Federal District.

Each time, federal investigators revived the case.  The State Investigative Committee is the Russian Federation’s highest investigating body, directly responsible to Putin.  In last week’s charges, the Committee alleged that Navalny led a criminal gang that stole the timber.

Navalny has struck a raw nerve among Putin’s inner circle.  If his investigations of state corruption and online help for massive street demonstrations were insufficient, in recent months, Navalny has taken a step closer to online opposition 2.0.

Although Internet penetration in Russia is growing by leaps and bounds, including in the countryside, a majority of people outside Moscow and Saint Petersburg still get their news from television.  Accordingly, Navalny’s new campaign—Good Machine of Truth—seeks to combine the power of the Internet with traditional methods to overcome TV, which he calls the “zombie box.”

Social media are used to promote door-to-door campaigns and to organize grassroots opposition, for example, against Krasnodar Governor Aleksandr Tkachyov for his alleged poor performance during July flooding in that region.  Another effort is to distribute electronically posters that allege that utility rates are rising in electoral districts that failed to support Putin and his party.  Wholesale distribution is by Internet, but the posters are real paper, plastered in public places across the country.

And it may be posters that directly led to Navalny’s present difficulties.  When the Duma passed a law requiring any NGO that receives foreign funds—mostly pro-democracy groups—to register as a foreign agent, Navalny wondered online why State Investigative Committee Director Aleksandr Bastrykin, as a federation official, had not divested his holdings in the Czech Republic.  Navalny’s posters fingering Bastrykin have even made their way onto some walls inside the State Investigative Committee.

Perhaps the current charges against Navalny will be reduced, resulting in another wrist-slapping jail term.  Perhaps he will be hounded out of the country.  Perhaps they have a cell reserved for him at the Segheza Correctional Colony Number 7—right next to deposed Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Whatever happens, two things are clear: Russian politics is moving online and the empire is striking back.

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