Washington Post: “The Kremlin is trying to expand its influence in cyberspace”

Original author: Anton Troyanovsky, Peter Finn
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Government sites are becoming more influential

For many years, the Kremlin has ignored the Internet, focusing on tightening control over traditional media such as television and newspapers. Now the situation has changed: the Kremlin and its supporters are starting to pay attention to cyberspace, which remains the last place for critical messages and lively discussions in the degenerate public sphere of Russian society.

Like-minded people of Vladimir Putin create pro-government news resources and sites of pop culture, while buying up recognized online strongholds of independent journalism. They cultivate a network of friendly bloggers to spread propaganda on command. And there was talk of creating a new Russian computer network that would be relatively independent of the “big” Internet and which would be easier for the authorities to control.

“The attractiveness of the Internet as a free platform for free people has already begun to disappear,” said Joseph Dzyaloshinsky, a media expert, professor at the Higher School of Economics.

Putin addressed the issue of Internet censorship during an All-Russian speech on radio and television this month. “In the Russian Federation, there is no control over the World Wide Web, over the Russian segment of the Internet,” Putin said. “I think that this is unpromising from the point of view of a technological solution to this problem in this area.”

“Of course, in this environment, as well as in other environments, we should think about ensuring that Russian laws are respected, that child pornography is not spread, that financial crimes are not committed in this environment,” he continued. - But this is a matter of law enforcement. Total control and the work of law enforcement agencies are still different things. ”

Many people here [in Russia] say that in their opinion Putin did not think about free Internet until the penetration of the Internet reached a high level. Back in 2002, 8% of adult Russians used the Network, and now their number has grown to 25%, so now cyberspace has attracted more and more attention from the authorities.

Some Russian experts say that 2004 was a turning point, when blogs and non-government-controlled online publications helped change the political picture in the presidential election in Ukraine after the pro-Kremlin candidate was declared the winner. After street protests in Kiev, re-elections were announced in which a pro-Western candidate was elected president.

Today, the Kremlin already has its own online forces and is fully prepared for the start of a street fight.

On April 14, the opposition held a march in the center of Moscow, in which hundreds of people took part; police detained at least 170 people, including a leader, a chess star, Garry Kasparov.

Pavel Danilin, a 30-year-old pro-Putin blogger whose online avatar is an ominous robot from the movie Terminator, works for a political consulting company loyal to the Kremlin. He says his team, including members of the Young Guard movement, immediately started blogging that day about a small pro-Kremlin march that took place at the same time.

They put links to each other, so that soon the records of the pro-Kremlin march supplanted the news about the opposition’s action from the list of the most popular posts in Yandex.Blogs.

“We worked great,” says Danilin.

In a large online article a year ago [ in fact, the article was written in 2003 - approx. per.] three Russian activists for human rights cited evidence that the harsh, rude, and uniform pro-Kremlin ideology, which is saturated with blogs and chats, can only be the result of a coordinated campaign.

Putin's supporters understand that the Internet poses a threat to the current state of things in Russia. After all, the authorities have kept strictly controlled television since Soviet times in order to influence the public opinion of people on a vast territory in 11 time zones.

“You are watching the first channel or the second channel and you can only see good news about Russia,” says Andrei Osipov, 26-year-old editor of the site of the pro-Kremlin Nashi movement, “the Internet is a freer media, and there is competition between state and opposition organizations. "

The Kremlin is also increasingly trying to get closer to private online resources that bring up new ideals of life in modern Russia that are different from pro-Putin consumerism and uncompromising.

The main champion of these ideals is 28-year-old businessman Konstantin Rykov. The gem of his media empire is the Vzglyad website, which was created two years ago : a business newspaper with a serious news section that publishes articles on Kremlin policy, with a glossy app that describes luxury cars and interior design. Studies put “Sight” in the top five of the most popular news sites on the Runet.

“Rykov created a good business on the state’s desire to invest in ideology,” says Anton Nosik, a Russian Internet pioneer working for Sup. Anton Nosik also added that private financing of Rykov’s projects was organized by Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s political adviser on domestic issues.

Kremlin officials deny any involvement in this: “It is a constant habit to look for the Kremlin’s hand in any popular and successful business,” Russian MP Dmitry Peskov answers the question about Rykov’s millions. “In reality, this is not so.”

Rykov himself in an interview with the Washington Post did not want to comment on information about his investors, however, a portrait of Surkov in a frame hangs above his desk. In the December parliamentary elections, Rykov will run for parliament as a candidate from the United Russia party.

“The Vzglyad newspaper from the very beginning created the impression of state publications,” says Rykov. “And from the point of view of business and advertising sales, this is very good.”

Kremlin supporters also began to buy some of the independent companies that at one time helped turn the Internet into a bastion of free speech in Russia. For example, Gazeta.ru , the country's most respected online newspaper for a long time, was sold last December to an oligarch loyal to Putin.

Last October, the rights to develop the Russian-language segment of LiveJournal, Russia's most popular blog portal, were sold to Sup, owned by Alexander Mamut, another tycoon with connections in the Kremlin.

“Mr. Rykov pro-Kremlin, Mamut and Sup pro-Kremlin. All social networks are bought up by pro-Kremlin people. Of course, everything is in order, ”says Ruslan Paushu (goblin_gaga), a popular Russian blogger who also works for Rykov.

Until now, Gazeta.ru continues to publish critical articles on Kremlin politics, and there are no reports of any censorship of blogs by Soup, but as the government begins to awaken the potential of the Internet, many of Putin’s critics become nervous.

Prosecutors have already targeted blogs and online chats as a target for criminal prosecution for libel or extremism against users who criticize Putin or other officials. Most of these incidents occurred outside of Moscow, and authorities deny that they received a signal to launch a broad campaign to control the Internet.

“Personally, I am against creating and adapting a special law that would regulate the Internet,” says Leonid Reiman, Minister of Information Technology and Communications. “The Internet has always evolved as a free environment, and it should remain so.”

But in July, Putin, at a meeting with his Security Council, outlined plans according to which Russia should become a global information leader by 2015. Russian news media reported that these plans include the creation of a new network separate from the Internet, which will be open only to the former Soviet republics.

“To put it bluntly, we need to fight for control over key nodes [water mains],” Gleb Pavlovsky, Kremlin’s chief political strategist, said in an interview. “We need to fight for the central networks and for the segments of the audience that they control.”

Wolfgang Kleinwaechter, a special adviser to the chairman of the UN Internet Governance Forum, has information that some Russian officials are discussing the creation of a separate Internet with Cyrillic domains, and are also starting to study Chinese experience.

Peskov said that the “Russian Internet” is so far only in the study phase, and added that he does not know whether this idea has moved further than just thinking out loud. “That doesn't mean getting rid of the global network,” he said. This is a discussion about creating a supplement. ”

At the moment, both supporters and critics of Putin see something unusual in the Kremlin’s actions: a contest on more or less equal terms with their opponents.

“Of course, there is a dark side where words like“ prohibit ”or“ restrict ”still sound, says Marat Gelman, who worked as a political consultant in the Kremlin until 2004. “But what really happens between the web and the authorities is very good.” Yes, they are trying to play this game. ”

Such a strategy is in clear contrast with the tactics that Putin applied to NTV’s independent television network, pursuing it through lawsuits and armed raids.

Blogger Marina Litvinovich, who previously worked for the Kremlin’s political strategist Pavlovsky, and now works for the United Civil Front Kasparov, says she is satisfied with the authorities’ approach to the Internet because it forces Putin’s supporters to respond to criticism and not just ignore it.

Litvinovich believes that as the Kremlin continues to consolidate political power in its hands, it has less and less incentive to engage in online propaganda. “And right now they don’t really need a particularly creative approach,” she adds.

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