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July 29 2013

Can Pirates Save the Russian Internet?

Russian supporters of internet freedom have their work cut out for them if they want to move their cause from the virtual to the physical world — last Sunday's protests against the so-called “anti-piracy law” attracted only a few hundred people out of the thousands that have voiced their opposition online.

RuNet Echo has previously written on the increasing encroachment on internet freedoms in Russia, and on what some would call creeping censorship. Last month, this trend seems to have come to a head, with the Russian parliament passing a law that is essentially equivalent to USA's SOPA [GV]. The law, which is due to come into effect on August 1, 2013, will allow any website to be shut down simply with claims that it hosts or links to copyrighted material.

"Pirate" flags reigned at Moscow's Internet freedom rally. YouTube Screenshot

“Pirate” flags reigned at Moscow's Internet freedom rally. YouTube Screenshot

The Russian Internet industry [ru] responded with shut-downs [GV], threats of an internet wide strike on August 1, petitions, and a series of protests, which were set to take place on July 28. As the protest announcement read [ru]:

Как показывает практика, власти в России редко обращают внимание на бурление в Сети. Гораздо больше их волнуют реальные люди, выходящие на улицы.

As practice shows, the Russian government rarely notices the churning of the Web. They are much more concerned with real people who walk out on the streets.

While this is a dubious proposition (considering the massive “successes” of Russian street protests over the last year), street actions were planned several weeks in advance with the support of the Russian Pirate Party [ru], RosComFreedom [ru], and the Association of Internet Users [ru], and took place in regional cities like Kazan, Tomsk and Novosibirsk [ru] in addition to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Nevertheless, they failed to bring out the crowds. The Moscow protest/concert, for example, attracted only “300-500″ people [ru], said the Pirate Party's Peter Rassudov — which is only half of the protest's VKontakte page [ru] 1,105 members.

A man dressed in skulls and symbolizing the "Death" of the RuNet leads a rally in Moscow. YouTube screenshot.

A man dressed in skulls and symbolizing the “Death” of the RuNet leads a rally in Moscow. YouTube screenshot.

Unsurprisingly, the proponents of internet freedom have had better success in their online endeavors, specifically with the petition they've filed on the Russian Public Initiative [ru] website. The petition [ru], which seeks the repeal of the the law deemed unfair, has so far been signed by 54,000 people, and reads:

Мы считаем, что данный закон направлен не столько против распространения нелегального контента, сколько против развития Интернета в России, нацелен на его разрушение, а также ущемляет интересы национальной интернет-индустрии и права интернет-общественности.

We believe that this law is aimed not so much against distribution of illegal content, but against development of the Russian Internet, is aimed at its [the Internet's] destruction, and additionally, infringes on the interests of the national internet-industry and the rights of the internet-using public.

While the number of signatures in less than a month is quite a feat, it falls short of the 100,000 needed for the petition to be reviewed, and shows signs of flagging:

A graph showing total votes for the petition seeking to repeal the "antipiracy" law. Screenshot, July 29, 2013.

A graph showing total votes for the petition seeking to repeal the “anti-piracy” law. Screenshot, July 29, 2013.

Russian techies don't give up easily, figuring out all kinds of ways to get out the vote — like a banner that any participating website can put at the top of their page (designed and posted [ru] by an anonymous user to the tech website Habrahabr). Perhaps the coming August 1 “Internet Strike” (a shutdown of participating websites) will also jar more internet users into voting. However, even if the petition reaches 100,000 votes, unless these thousands of virtual supporters can be converted into physical bodies on the streets and lobbyists in Parliament, the Russian government isn't likely to care.

Laughing at Putin's Pike

Vladimir Putin's presidential photo-ops, which grow more absurd with each passing year, are reliable fodder for online satire. In his latest publicity stunt, Putin joined Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on a fishing trip in the Krasnoyarsk krai and Tyva Republic. From the moment the Kremlin's press office published photographs of this macho excursion, the images sparked a wave of netizen derision.

Vladimir Putin poses with his catch, Krasnoyarsk, Russia, 20 July 2013, Kremlin photo service, public domain.

Vladimir Putin poses with his catch, Krasnoyarsk, Russia, 20 July 2013, Kremlin photo service, public domain.

The Twitter account for the website Grani.ru, for instance, rallied Web users to caption some of the photos:

Путин! Щука! Магадан! Давайте придумаем подпись под фото

Putin! A pike! Magadan! Let’s think up a caption for this photo

One twitter user referenced Putin’s recent divorce in response, joking:

“Люда, вернись!”

“Luda, come back!”

In response to a photo of Putin kissing the fish he caught, Twitter user Seva Chagaev observed:

Дед совсем с ума сошел.

Grandpa has totally lost his mind.

Writing on LiveJournal, Andrei Malgin reposted [ru] four shirtless photos of a fishing Putin, observing with some insinuation that Medvedev had been the photographer.

Some bloggers, like LiveJournal's viking_nord, have poked fun at Putin's fishing trip by connecting it back to his recently announced divorce. Above, a pike-fish replaces Putin's ex-wife at Orthodox church service.

One commenter remarked that the images possibly violate Russia's recent law banning “homosexual propaganda”:

вообще, от фоток попахивает запрещенной пропагандой.

generally speaking, the photos give off a whiff of banned propaganda.

Another LJ user quipped:

а где Светлана??? Или теперь нет вопросов- ради кого развёлся путин??

And where is Svetlana??? Or is there now no question who broke up Putin's marriage??

A more serious commenter stated:

Кстати, меня, как женщину с консервативными, традиционными взглядами [...], эти фотографии смущают. Я считаю, что их место, в лучшем случае, в семейном альбоме, но никак не в официальных источниках о досуге главы государства.

By the way, as a woman with conservative, traditional views… [...] these photos bother me. I believe that their place is, at best, in a family album, but definitely not in the official record of the head of state.

In response, another commenter wrote:

видимо, у них противоположная целевая аудитория..

Apparently they have a different target audience..

Commenter Yuri Dvorkin played Kremlinologist:

В прошлый раз, когда они рыбачили под Астраханью, Медведев узнал о своем желании выдвинуть Путина в президенты. Не узнал ли в этот раз Медведев о своем желании подать в отставку? 23 сентября покажет.

The last time they went fishing in Astrakhan, Medvedev learned about his desire to nominate Putin [to serve a third term] as president. This time, did Medvedev find out about his desire to resign? September 23 will reveal the answer.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin's press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, told the media that Putin's catch weighed 21 kilograms (46.2 pounds). This claim provoked the incredulity of many bloggers, who posted photographs [ru] of similar-sized pike-fish, also catch by various fishermen, that weighed only half a much.

Bloggers take issue with the President's Press Secretary's claim about the weight of Putin's catch. Top left pike is 9.2 kg, bottom left is 12.7 kg, and Peskov says Putin's was somehow 21 kg.

Russian mathematician and economist Alfred Kokh did the math on the weight of Putin’s fish, and concluded:

Таким образом пойманная Путиным щука весит от силы 10 – 11 кг., а не 21 как врет Песков.

Странные у них представления о числах, объемах, количестве. То на митинге численностью в 100 000 чел. они видят только 10 000.

So Putin caught a pike weighing between 10-11 kg—not 21 [kg], as Peskov lies.

They have a strange understanding of numbers, amounts, and quantities. At a [political, anti-government] demonstration numbering 100,000 people, they see only 10,000.

July 26 2013

A Jewish Russian Mayoral Candidate Even the Nazis Can Love

While Moscow's upcoming mayoral election [GV] may be getting the lion's share of attention from the Russian public and the world, September 8, 2013, actually sees mayoral and gubernatorial elections in a variety of Russian regions and cities. One of the more interesting campaigns may turn out to be in Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth largest city. Yekaterinburg's political climate differs from the rest of Russia. The ruling United Russia party performs poorly here (finishing second in the 2012 Duma elections, behind the nominally social-democratic party “A Just Russia”), and oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov did relatively well in the 2012 presidential elections, taking 18.75% of the vote, compared to his 7.98% share of the electorate nationally.

Yekaterinburg is also home to one of Russian politics’ most unusual and independent political figures, Yevgeny Roizman. A Duma Deputy from 2002-2008, an anti-corruption blogger, and the head of the highly controversial anti-drugs charity [GV], “City without Drugs,” Roizman officially announced his candidacy for mayor on Friday, July 19, 2013. Roizman is currently involved (but not implicated) in a number of legal proceedings, including the trial of his partner, Aksana Panova, the former head of the regional news network Ura.ru, and an investigation headed by the FSB into the illegal wiretaps on his phones.

Evgeny Roizman in an interview in November 2012, screenshot from YouTube.

Evgeny Roizman in an interview in November 2012, screenshot from YouTube.

Announcing his mayoral run on the web portal Znak.ru [ru] (Panova's new outfit), Roizman first claimed that he had received 12 million roubles from Prokhorov, whose “Civic Platform” party Roizman would represent, promising that the oligarch would “give as much as necessary.” Roizman then backtracked, declaring [ru] at a press conference that “we won't take and we won't spend a single kopeck of his money,” now claiming that Prokhorov had not asked [ru] him to run. “I'm not a little girl who needs to be persuaded. I've been thinking about this for several months… I made the decision,” he explained.

Unsurprisingly, Znak.ru readers greeted Roizman's announcement with great enthusiasm. One commenter was moved to compose a short poem lauding Roizman, whom he addressed affectionately by his diminutive “Zhenya.”

Женя, Женечка, Евгений,
Ты в работе просто гений!
Раз решил – не отступай!
Пять лет городу отдай!

Zhenya, Zhenechka, Yevgeny,
There's no work you find too heavy!
Once you've decided, don't waver!
Give the city five years of your labor!

Roizman's candidacy excited many members of the opposition, as well. Indeed, he is a nationally-known opposition figure with political experience and a large, concentrated power base, which is highly unusual in Russia. Vladimir Milov, a Moscow oppositionist, wrote a blog post on Ekho Moskvy, titled, “These Elections could be Revolutionary“:

Навальный в Москве, Ройзман в Екатеринбурге – слушайте, а чего вам еще надо-то? Вот они, выборы вашей мечты.

Navalny in Moscow, Roizman in Yekaterinburg, listen, what more could you need? Here they are: the elections of your dreams.

Not everyone shared Milov's enthusiasm. Roizman is viewed with suspicion in many quarters for his views on migrants, his criminal record (he served two years for armed theft in the mid-1980s), and his strict detox clinics, where patients are reportedly handcuffed to beds. One Yekaterinburger astutely pointed out [ru] the problems that could arise from Roizman's election:

В случае избрания Ройзмана, отношение к нему Кувайшева неизбежно будет вызывать конфликты между городом и областью, что явно не на пользу Екатеринбургу.

If Roizman is elected, his relations with [governor of the Sverdlovsk Region, Yevgeny] Kuivashev's will inevitably cause conflicts between the city and wider region, which is clearly not to Yekaterinburg's advantage.

Others’ took issue with Roizman's character, like the Yekaterinburg-based research center “Analitik,” which wrote on its LiveJournal blog:

Это неловкое чувство, когда неглупые вменяемые люди на полном серьезе считают Ройзмана достойным кандидатом в мэры Екатеринбурга. Иконы, поэзия, борьба с наркотиками, романтика с псевдо-оппозиционными журналистками – это на здоровье, каждый дрочит как он хочет. Но лично мне будет как-то неуютно, если главой моего города станет человек с мутным прошлым (и не менее мутным настоящим), тюремной ходкой в анамнезе и очень запущенными отношениями с областными властями.

It's an awkward feeling when intelligent and responsible people in all seriousness consider Roizman an appropriate candidate for Yekaterinburg's mayor. The [religious] icons, the poetry, the fight against drugs, the dalliance with pseudo-oppositionist journalists—that's all fine. To each to his own, if it pleases him. But personally I'd be really annoyed if someone with a murky past (and a no less murky present), а criminal record, and shabby relations with the regional authorities became mayor of my city.

Others are happy to look past Roizman's colorful past. As one commenter pointed out [ru] to Analitik:

В нашей стране получить судимость-легко,как насморк.
ИМХО,Ройзман-намного честнее,чем все эти ставленники ПЖиВ.

In our country, getting a conviction is as easy as catching a cold. IMHO, Roizman is a lot more honest then all the other candidates from the party of cardsharps and thieves [a common disparaging term for United Russia].

Roizman's grassroots popularity and reputation for getting things done has won him fans not only among liberals but among nationalists as well, who like his tough stance on drugs and willingness to face down the “ethnic gangs” associated with drug smuggling. Roizman's efforts have, somewhat amazingly, even won him the endorsement of the neo-nazi “People's Socialist Initiative,” whose stated anti-semitism did not preclude [ru] them from listing the achievements of Roizman, who is half-Jewish:

Чем он занимался последние годы? Решительной и бескомпромиссной, а зачастую и опасной борьбой с распространением наркотиков. Войной с этническими кланами, живущими наркоторговлей, и с крышующей их властью. В активе Ройзмана – спасенные наркоманы, посаженные наркобарыги, снос цыганских особняков… Поэтому Ройзман – это правильный еврей. Еврей, своими действиями показавший, на чьей он стороне.

What has [Roizman] been doing these last few years? Waging a decisive and uncompromising, not to mention dangerous, fight against drug distributers. Fighting with ethnic clans who survive by dealing drugs and with the authorities who shelter them. He has saved drug addicts, helped imprison drug-pushers, and demolished the Gypsies’ garish homes… For this reason, Roizman is the right kind of Jew. A Jew who has shown through his actions whose side he's on.

Roizman is a highly divisive figure. But his popularity is genuine and crosses through multiple demographics, his anti-drug charity enjoys real support in a city that has been plagued by heroin addiction, and his tenure as a Duma deputy for the Sverdlovsk region gives him a proven political record. While polling suggests that Navalny's Moscow candidacy is highly unlikely to result in his victory, Roizman has a good chance of actually winning. Like him or loath him, his candidacy means the Yekaterinburg elections may prove the most interesting to watch in the coming months.

July 25 2013

Ethnic Slurs Haunt Alexey Navalny

Alexey Navalny came under harsh criticism from Russian opposition movement colleagues as soon as he was released from Kirov jail on a “podpiska,” (an agreement to stay at his current place of residence — the Russian equivalent of making bail), and as soon as it became clear that he would continue to run for mayor of Moscow throughout the appeals process for his 5-year long prison sentence.

These fair-weather enemies restrained from public disagreement while it appeared that Navalny was getting the full brunt of government persecution in a trial most view as unjust and political in nature. However, now that Navalny stands a chance to keep himself out of prison by garnering a critical mass of public support in the mayoral elections against current mayor Sergey Sobyanin, the flood-gates have opened. First, Evgenya Chirikova, environmental activist and former opposition darling with her own mayoral ambitions [GV], wrote a harsh blog post [ru] attacking Navalny for skipping the environmental policy section in his electoral platform [GV].

Navalny responded to Chirikova's criticism promising to include the environment, but could not refrain from dismissively joking that her and her supporters would be distributed propaganda materials made out of “sticks, moss and tree bark. [ru]” It is partially his abrasive sense of humor and uneven tone that got Navalny in the next bit of trouble. The same day that Chirikova wrote her blog, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Moskovsky Komsomolets Ayder Muzhdabaev wrote an open letter [ru] in his Facebook asking questions about the opposition candidate's perceived nationalist views.

Navalny has never hid his sympathies for the Russian nationalist movement — only a few weeks ago he co-authored a statement on ethnic violence in Pugachev [ru] with prominent nationalist opposition leaders. Muzhdabaev's questions, however, were much more personal. In particular, he addressed allegedly racist episodes in Navalny's biography — one in which he reportedly called a female Azerbaijani co-worker a “darkie” (“chernozhopaia,” literally “black-assed”), and another in which he referred to Georgians as “rodents” (a play on words: Gruziny (Georgians) and gryzuny (rodents)) during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.

Navalny's answer wasn't gracious. He started by tweeting [ru]:

My staff demands that I answer some kind of disgusting open letter. I hate stuff like that. Total waste of time. It sickens me

With a mindset like this, it's no wonder that Navalny ended up with a letter [ru] that can be described as patronizing. After prefacing with how much he dislikes writing answers to such “pointed” [the scare-quotes are Navalny's - A.T.] questions, and how he is going to do it anyway because its his “duty,” Navalny petulantly wrote that he has already answered them 138 times (later he upped that figure to 138,000). At one point he started an answer with an exasperated “Hellloooowwww.” In fact, Navalny seemed so rude that some people drew comparisons between him and President Putin. Olga Allenova, a Kommersant journalist, wrote [ru]:

Этот хамский, снисходительный тон в ответах журналисту никого нам не напоминает? По-моему, парень – истинный преемник ВВП.

Does this boorish, condescending tone when answering a journalist remind you of anyone? I think the guy is a true successor to VVP [Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin]

Journalist Stanislav Minin made a similar connection [ru] to Putin's patented “macho” style of answering questions.

Rudeness aside, the biggest point of contention turned out to be the alleged ethnic slur against Saadat Kadyrova, who worked for the Moscow office of the opposition Yabloko party in the early 2000s together with Navalny. While in the original letter Muzhdabaev referred to statements that Kadyrova herself made about the incident (probably this Novemeber 2012 interview [ru] with Kadyrova where she says that Navalny's behavior forced her to leave the party), Navalny chose to interpret the question as referring to a blog post by a different former party colleague. He linked to a November 2011 post [ru] by Engelina Tareeva, an 88 year old woman who briefly mentioned the incident in her LiveJournal, but seems to have a generally positive view of Navalny. In this way Navalny evaded answering “Yes” or “No” to the original question, instead intimating that the incident was simply imagined by a half-senile “grandma” who only saw him a few times at the office.

This claim forced several of Navalny and Tareeva's Yablko colleagues to chime in with their own recollections. Semyon Burd, former Deputy Chairman of Moscow's Yabloko, wrote [ru]:

Вот лжет и не краснеет. Я несколько раз был свидетелем длинных разговоров Энгелины Борисовны и Алексея в 101 комнате. Она работала много на выборах 2005 года, работала на телефоне, еженедельно рассказывала Алексею о своих результатах. [...] Энгелина Борисовна была членом регионального совета, где Алексей Навальный был заместителем председателя. А теперь она стала бабушкой, видевшей его несколько раз в офисе.

He's a bold-faced liar. I have on several occasions witnessed long conversations between Engelina Borisovna and Alexey in room 101. She worked a lot during the 2005 elections, worked on the phone, and gave weekly updates to Alexey about her results. [...] Engelina Borisovna was a member of the regional party council, where Alexey Navalny was deputy chairman. And now shes suddenly a grandma, who saw him in the office a few times.

Another former Yabloko activist wrote [ru]:

рабочие места милой бабушки и Алексея Навального на первом этаже в период избирательной кампании разделяло метров десять [...]

the work spaces of the cute grandma and Alexey Navalny, on the first floor, during the election campaign, were about ten meters apart [...]

He also recalled Kadyrova, as did Alexander Gnezdilov (Alexandra Garmazhapova posted the following in a Facebook comment [ru]):

Александр Гнездилов пишет: “Когда в 2007 году Навального собирались исключать за национализм – Явлинский на бюро при десятках свидетелей напомнил Алексею об этом эпизоде и тот даже не заикнулся о том, что это ложь [...]“

Alexander Gnezdilov writes: “When in 2007 Navalny was being kicked out of the party for nationalism, during the working meeting [Party Chairman Grigory] Yavlinsky reminded Alexey about this episode in front of dozens of witnesses and he didn't even try to claim it was a lie [...]“

Tareeva herself also weighed in [ru], thinking that Navalny made a mistake:

Ему не нужно было отрицать общеизвестный факт, я имею в виду эпизод с азербайджанкой, зафиксированный в партийных документах. Лучше было сказать, что этот случай имел место, что то, что он сказал, он сказал в состоянии аффекта, а вовсе не по тому, что так думает, что он сожалеет об этом, и извинился.

He shouldn't have denied a commonly known fact, I mean the incident with the Azerbaijani girl, which was recorded in party documents. It would have been better for him to say that it did take place, but what he said he said in the heat of passion, and not because he actually thinks like that, that he is sorry for it, and has asked for forgiveness.

The preponderance of evidence seems to suggest that Navalny lied when giving his answer — in her interview, Kadyrova mentions the incident in passing, and does not appear to think that it's at all controversial:

Он вместе со мной начинал работать в «Яблоке». И когда-то я впервые услышала от Алексея Навального националистические высказывания вроде «вы — чернож…е», я рассказала об этом Григорию Алексеевичу Явлинскому.

He started working at Yabloko when I did. And when I first heard Alexey Navalny say nationalist things like “you're darkies”, I told Grigory Alexeevich Yavlinsky about it.

A scene from the cult 90s Russian movie "Brat" (Brother). A veteran of the first Chechen war, played by Danila Bagrov, returns home and finds employment as a mafia hit-man. Here we see him force two raucous North Caucasian immigrants to pay for their tram ticket at the point of a gun. Bagrov's character uses the slur "chernozhopyi" to address them as he his celebrates victory. Some accuse Navalny of exploiting the same populist anti-immigrant sentiments that made this scene popular. YouTube screenshot.

A scene from the cult 90s Russian movie “Brat” (Brother). A veteran of the first Chechen war, played by Danila Bagrov, forces two raucous North Caucasian immigrants to pay for their tram ticket at gunpoint. Bagrov's character uses the slur “chernozhopyi” to address the men. Some accuse Navalny of exploiting the anti-immigrant sentiments which made this scene popular. YouTube screenshot.

Supporters were quick to defend Navalny, whose situation is still precarious, but who at the same time stands a slight chance of changing the balance of power in Russia. Afisha's Yury Saprykin, for example, thought [ru] that it doesn't matter what Navalny really thinks or how he would act when in office — to him, the situation is akin to Pascal's wager, i.e. the worst thing that could happen is that Navalny turns into another Putin, and Russia already has a Putin, so it can only get better. (Even Saprykin, however, thought that Navalny needs to dial down his haughtiness when talking to critics.)

Some, like blogger Varvara Turova and LGBT-rights activist Maria Gessen, disagreed. Turova wrote [ru]:

Представьте, что у Путина есть брат-близнец. И он точно такой же человек. И он борется с настоящим Путиным. Будете вы за него голосовать?

Imagine that Putin has a twin brother. And he is exactly the same kind of person. And he is fighting the real Putin. Will you vote for him?

Gessen simply said [ru], referring to Navalny's ambitions of eventually running for President:

Я не хочу такого будущего, оно у нас и так есть.

I don't want a future like this, we already have one like it.

For some Navalny supporters his nationalism is a feature, not a bug. The journalist Oleg Kashin made this joke [ru] (in somewhat poor taste), for instance:

- Алексей, скажите, вы действительно назвали черножопой женщину из партии “Яблоко”?
- Да, а что?

-Alexey, tell me, did you really call a woman from the Yabloko party a darkie?
-Yes, what of it?

The publicist Dmitry Olshansky went further [ru], seeing a nationalist strategy as the only way forward for a attracting the electorate:

Если бы Навальный в сознании всех жителей РФ, кто о нем откуда-нибудь узнает, четко связался бы с идеей, назовем это так, этнокультурного замещения – 50% победы было бы в кармане. “Придет Навальный – выгонит всех этих”

If Navalny, in the mind of all the denizens of Russia who ever find out about him was clearly tied with the idea of, lets call it ethnocultural replacement – 50% of the victory would be a cinch. “Navalny will come – and kick all of these [people] out”

Perhaps he is correct — people of all walks of life seem to be sounding off about the “minority problem.” Former government adviser Alfred Koch, for example, wrote this [ru] about Muzhdabaev (an ethnic minority), who started the ball rolling with his questions:

Этот Айдер Муждабаев – банальный провокатор. Все так очевидно. Взяли нацмена и вот он задает “острые” вопросы с национальным орнаментом.

This Ayder Muzhdabaev, is simply a provocateur. It's obvious. They took a natsmen [old Soviet abbreviation from "natsional'noe menshistvo", ethnic minority, mildly derogatory/dismissive - A.T.] and now he is asking “pointed” questions with ethnic color.

With friends like this, who needs enemies? The satirical Twitter account IgorSechinEvilTwin (parodying the former deputy chief of Putin's administration, and current chairman of Rossneft) was on the same page [ru]:

Sergey Semenovich [Sobyanin], you don't need to find money for the Navalny-walloping. His own fans will do it for free.

July 21 2013

Has Alexey Navalny Really Changed Russian Politics?

Russians are waking up in a new country. Last week’s rollercoaster events—Alexey Navalny’s conviction, sentencing, arrest, and quick release, as well as a large street protest in his defense—are a watershed moment in the evolution of the Russian civil spirit. Indeed, of the Russian psyche. Yes, of all Russian politics!

In Moscow, political analyst Kirill Rogov writes [ru], “politics has inexorably returned to Russian life.” From Washington, DC, journalist Julia Ioffe proclaims that Navalny has “changed Russian politics” and showed Russians “how not to be afraid.” These grand statements come in advance of Moscow’s September 8 mayoral election, which will pit Navalny against incumbent city chief Sergey Sobyanin.

If Navalny has in fact rejuvenated Russian politics, what exactly does that look like online, where his support base is supposedly strongest? Measuring and interpreting answers to this question could go in any number of directions, but a reasonable place to start is with Navalny’s campaign platform, which he published on July 1, 2013.

Screenshot of the Navalny platform's title page.

Screenshot of the Navalny platform's title page.

Moscow’s official population is roughly 12 million people. If you use the Yandex Blogs search engine, there are over 4,000 results for the words “Navalny” and “platform” (программа) since July 1. Searching specifically for hyperlinks to the full text of Navalny’s platform [ru], meanwhile, turns up 389 hits: it appears 175 times on Twitter and 124 times on LiveJournal, Vkontakte, and similar services (though unfortunately Yandex Blogs does not index Facebook). When Navalny unveiled his platform, he called a press conference and recorded a video of the presentation, which he then posted to YouTube (see below). That video had over 64,000 views by July 19, with about half of that traffic recorded in the first three days after publication. Since July 5, the audience has held steady at about 2,000 views a day, which—if it continues—would lead to around 165,000 total views by election day.

In the 124 times that Russians cited Navalny’s platform in full blog posts (that is, on LiveJournal and elsewhere, but not on Twitter), only a handful of bloggers truly interrogated the content of the document. (Most people just posted a link to the platform, or reposted the text of Navalny’s announcement, without adding original commentary.) Searching through those 124 cases, I was able to identify just 21 posts where individuals actually discussed any of the platform’s details—and more than half of them (11) take a negative view of Navalny’s plans for Moscow. Slightly fewer than 30% of the reactions (6) are unambiguously supportive.

There are several trends in bloggers’ criticism of Navalny’s platform. People’s concerns generally address four issues: nationalism, qualifications, older generations of Russians, and overlap with Sobyanin’s platform [ru].

On nationalism and populism

Navalny’s critics have always attacked him for harboring excessively nationalist, borderline racist views about the presence of Central Asian migrants working illegally in Russia. In his mayoral platform, Navalny lays out a five-point plan to combat illegal migration, which includes transparency efforts aiming to battle illegally low pay for public services workers, and the creation of “education centers” for the children of migrants, to promote their integration into Moscow schools and learning of the Russian language.

Artem Semin, a blogger based in Moscow, criticizes [ru] Navalny’s emphasis on transparency promotion as the “naïve” pursuit of a “panacea.” Semin reasons that increased openness would not increase wages for menial jobs significantly enough to attract native Muscovites:

Так, Навальный рассчитывает, что публикация штатных расписаний на городских предприятиях позволит частично решить проблему с нелегальной миграцией. Сейчас ситуация с его точки зрения такова: злодеи из префектур и муниципалитетов нанимают таджиков на выделенные на рабочую силу деньги, при этом присваивают какую-то часть этих средств. Мол, я найму Джамшута за десять тысяч рублей, а остальное положу себе в карман. Если же начать платить за ту же работу полную сумму, ту, которая выделена бюджетом, то на место Джамшута явится коренной москвич Иван Иванов, а таджик первым рейсом поедет домой, проливая слёзы. К сожалению, на самом деле эти надежды безосновательны. Ну будут за уборку улиц платить не десять тысяч рублей, а восемнадцать – много ли москвичей бросится на эту работу?

So Navalny expects that publishing the staff lists of city facilities will allow him partially to solve the problem of illegal migration. The situation now from his perspective is this: these villains in the prefect’s office and the municipalities are hiring Tajiks, using some of the money allocated to public projects [to pay them], but pocketing the rest. Something like: I’ll hire Dzhamshut for 10 thousand rubles, and I’ll put the rest in my pocket. [But] if we start paying the full amount allocated from the city budget to these services, then in place of Dzhamshut we’ll get native Muscovite Ivan Ivanov, and the Tajik will be on the first plane home, shedding tears. Unfortunately, these hopes are unfounded. When it comes to cleaning the streets, they’re going to pay 18 thousand rubles instead of 10 thousand. How many Muscovites will rush to sign up for such work?

Dmitri Zykov, another blogger in Moscow, complains [ru] that Navalny’s program is “rightwing populist neoliberal f**kery”:

Он хочет в Москве сеть видеокамер, чтобы следить за людьми, ЧОП патрулирующий улицы – (голубая мечта неолибералов, заменить полицию на частных охранников). Отдельные школы для детей мигрантов, чтобы изолировать их от детей москвичей. Это будут школы-гетто, типа банту-школ при апартеиде в ЮАР. Взрослых мигрантов предлагается ещё больше ограничить в правах. Для их же блага, конечно. “Создание конкуренции между учреждениями здравоохранения”, принцип “деньги следуют за пациентом” – эти замечательные предложения Навального означают коммерциализацию московской системы здравоохранения.

He wants a network of video cameras in Moscow to monitor people, [and] private security firms to patrol the streets (a dream of neoliberals, replacing the police with private guards). [He wants] separate schools for the children of migrants, in order to isolate them from the children of Muscovites. These will become school-ghettos, like the Bantu schools in South Africa under Apartheid. And he proposes even more restrictions on the rights of adult migrants. It’s for their own good, of course. “Creating competition between healthcare agencies”—the principle of “money follows the patient”—these wonderful suggestions by Navalny would mean the commercialization of Moscow’s healthcare system.

Even the nationalist website Sputnik i Pogrom knocked [ru] Navalny on the illegal immigrant issue, though its objection was that Navalny pulls his punches against the city’s non-Russian scourge:

О возможной замене иностранных граждан мигрантов гражданами российскими, о введении программ преференций по найму российским гражданам и т.п. — ни слова. «Давайте смиримся с тем, что Москва больше не русский город, и будем за наши же деньги „адаптировать“ приехавших из горных аулов диких таджиков, которые и говорят-то с трудом. Ведь нам нужны таджики!». О кавказцах же, убийствах, Манежке и стреляющих свадьбах и вовсе ни слова — такой проблемы нет.

About the possible replacement of foreigner migrants by citizens of Russia, about the introduction of a program to give hiring preferences to Russian citizens, and so on—there’s not a word. “Let’s make peace with the fact that Moscow is no longer a Russian city, and use our own money to ‘adapt’ these wild Tajiks, arrived from their mountain villages, who barely speak. After all, we need the Tajiks!” About North Caucasians, the murders, about Manezh and the trigger-happy weddings, there’s absolutely not a word. There is no such problem [according to Navalny’s platform].

On Navalny’s qualifications to be mayor

Another criticism commonly made of Navalny is that he lacks the experience necessary to hold political office. Navalny’s platform puts front and center his leadership in various anti-corruption efforts (he lists RosPil, his most prominent vehicle, as the first justification for supporting his candidacy), but some bloggers continue to question whether this is sufficient preparation to lead Russia’s capital city.

Lebedev has published an entire blog post collecting mockeries of Navalny's campaign materials (like this one), poking fun at the decision to use an unorthodox full circle above the final letter of his surname.

On July 2, Russian LiveJournal’s third most popular user, Artemy Lebedev, published a scathing attack on Navalny’s mayoral campaign, ignoring the policy details of his plans, but engaging the “fundamental goals” listed in the platform. On the subject of Navalny’s qualifications for the job, Lebedev writes [ru]:

А при чем тут мэр Москвы, епта? Иди в налоговую инспекцию, в счетную палату, в минфин, в ФАС, в СК, в прокуратуру – там люди занимаются ровно тем же самым. Предотвращай и дальше.

F**k ,what does the mayor of Moscow have to do with anything? Go into tax inspection, the chamber of accounts, the Ministry of Finance, the Anti-Monopoly Service, the Investigative Committee, [or] the prosecutor’s office—there are people there doing exactly the same thing. Go and avert [more corruption] there.

LiveJournal user Mikhail Antonovich, writing with obvious dislike for the candidate on a personal level, frets [ru] that Navalny’s fixation on corruption could distract him from the more prosaic duties of mayor:

[…] большей частью в программе идет пиар проекта “РосПил” и позиционирование Алексея как борца с коррупцией. Понятно, что коррупция – это язва на теле нашего государства, но в первую очередь Мэр города должен ведать городским хозяйством, а с коррупцией должны бороться ведомственные органы. […] Понятно, что за этим нужно следить, не допускать и карать, но все же, если только за этим и следить, то можно упустить из вида другие проблемы.

[…] for the most part, the platform is a PR project for RosPil and portrays Alexey as a warrior against corruption. Yes, corruption is a cancer on the body of our state, but the mayor should firstly be concerned with managing the city’s services and facilities. Fighting corruption falls to the various departments and agencies. […] Yes, we need to monitor, prevent, and punish [corruption], but one might lose sight of other problems, if that’s all he does.

On Moscow’s older citizens

Many of Navalny’s ideas about boosting government transparency involve putting more state information online and opening new Internet portals to allow for citizen feedback. While this has been a trend in governments worldwide, both in and outside Russia, some bloggers have expressed concerns that the digitization of municipal services leaves out in the cold older people, who are none too fond of computers or the World Wide Web.

Yuri Yakor, for instance, says [ru] that he likes the gist of Navalny’s vision for Moscow, but worries about what it would mean for his mother and grandmother:

В целом, все правильно и звучит на редкость интересно. Но, мне 27 лет и я знаю, как пользоваться компьютером. Моя мама представляет это уже с трудом, моя бабушка боится его, как дьявола. Электронная демократия отсечет их обеих от принятия важных решений (все решения будут принимать молодые компьютерно образованные люди).

In general, everything [in the platform] looks good and sounds extremely interesting, but I’m 27-years-old, and I know how to use a computer. It’s still hard for my mom, and my grandma is afraid of the thing, like it was the Devil. eDemocracy will cut off both of them from important decisionmaking. (All decisions will be made by young, computer-educated people.)

An image from Elena Sola's blog post, expressing a mix of hope and concern about Navalny's mayoral run. Text reads: “to Moscow!”

Elena Sola is another blogger who sympathizes with the basic principles of Navalny’s agenda, but she, too, argues [ru] that he fails to appeal to Moscow’s core voter group—its pensioners:

Штаб волонтёров, созданный в поддержку Алексея Навального идея замечательная, но собираются там, в основном люди до 30 лет. То есть для пенсионеров например, которые представляют сегодня за неимением « движущей силы -рабочего класса» существенную долю избирателей, нет в программе кандидата Навального ничего привлекательного. Лучше чем сегодня им не будет, а хуже вполне возможно.

The volunteer headquarters created in support of Alexey Navalny is a wonderful idea, but the people gathering there are mostly under 30-years-old. Meaning, for pensioners, who today represent a fundamental share of the electorate (thanks to the absence of the “driving force of the working class”), there’s nothing at all attractive in candidate-Navalny’s platform. It’s not going to get any better for [pensioners] than it is today, but it could get a whole lot worse.

On sharing Sobyanin’s ideas

Given the years he’s spent vociferously criticizing the Russian establishment, it is ironic that one of the criticisms now leveled at candidate-Navalny is that his platform is too similar to that of the Kremlin’s handpicked steward of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin. Indeed, even when it comes to the two contentious policy issues covered above (migrant workers and the expansion of the state’s online disclosures), Sobyanin and Navalny seem to be of one mind [ru]. Yes, there are some areas where Navalny’s ideas differ slightly from Sobyanin’s, like when it comes to restructuring the Moscow government. (Navalny proposes electing justices of the peace, introducing new local financing initiatives, and increasing the authority of the municipalities.) But Sobyanin, albeit more cautiously, favors decentralizing policies, too.

That said, maybe Sobyanin’s limited support for the decentralization of the Moscow government is too careful for many Muscovites’ tastes, when compared to Navalny’s plans. While the distinction might have been enough to set Navalny apart from Sobyanin in policy terms, Navalny’s campaign team decided not to make these issues the central motif of his platform. As an editorial [ru] in Nezavisimaia Gazeta points out, Navalny after all didn’t adorn the cover page of his platform with a radical slogan like “All power to the municipalities!”

Moscow blogger Aleksandr Mikhailov, for example, claims [ru] that Navalny’s platform just regurgitates Sobyanin’s program:

Все остальное – переписанные «человеческим языком» разделы программы развития Москвы, взятой с сайта мэрии столицы. Те же обещания «прорыва общественного транспорта столицы», «ликвидации стихийной застройки», «создание системы платной парковки», «создание системы электронных жалоб» и т.д. и т.п.

All the rest of it [other than the handful of differences summarized above] are sections from [Sobyanin’s] platform for the development of Moscow, copied over and [rewritten] “in a [more] human language.” It’s the same exact promises: a “breakthrough in public transport,” the “elimination of sporadic construction,” the “creation of a system of paid parking,” the “creation of a system of electronic complaints,” and so on, and so on.

Dmitri Salov, another LiveJournal user writing from Moscow, compared side-by-side [ru] Navalny’s and Sobyanin’s two platforms, concluding that Navalny’s most significant ideas are borrowed from the acting Moscow mayor, adding the familiar suggestion that Navalny would do best to remain an anti-corruption activist on the sidelines, for the time being at least:

Алексей хороший и амбициозный парень и, возможно, у него есть потенциал, но Москвой управляют профессионалы и бюрократия, от которых зависит, будут ли работать водопровод, канализация и транспорт. На данном этапе Навальный не готов взять на себя ответственность за все это. Но тем не менее, ему никто не мешает помогать контролировать все сферы деятельности в которых возможна коррупция и о всех фактах сообщать в правоохранительные органы!

Alexey is a good, ambitious guy, and maybe he has potential, but Moscow is managed by professionals and bureaucrats, who determine whether or not the plumbing, the drains, and public transport will work. At this stage, Navalny isn’t ready to take on responsibility for all this. Nevertheless, nobody is stopping him from helping monitor all spheres of activity where corruption is possible, or from conveying any information to the police!

Russian Politics Reborn

There are certainly big limitations to looking at Navalny’s impact on Russian politics in the way I have above. How many people in an election anywhere really study the candidates’ official platforms? Navalny himself, when announcing its publication, jokingly offered [ru] the YouTube summary of his platform to those “too lazy to read it.” Not everyone in the campaign, however, has been so quick to dismiss the platform’s significance. Navalny’s campaign chief, Leonid Volkov, declared [ru] on July 3 that “no political text in the last few months (or even years) has caused so much discussion.” This statement is either inaccurate or a great insult to any recent political texts.

Let’s be clear: there are certainly more than 21 people talking about Navalny’s platform. The methodology used to identify that handful of texts was only meant to grab exact citations of the platform’s URL. In an election that affects 12 million people, though, it’s nothing short of astounding that so few bloggers have engaged the document in a substantive way.

If Navalny’s base—the Russian blogosphere—is so uninterested in his specific policy ideas (indeed, many of the netizens writing about them in any detail share common reservations), one wonders what the stuff of the “new Russian politics” might be. Indications are that most of Navalny’s supporters seem captivated instead by his personality and his growing dissident credibility (which the Kremlin amplifies with every new court action against him). But if it’s mainly his personal charisma and the odiousness of his opponent that makes Navalny the public’s new darling, what really has changed in Russian politics?

July 19 2013

The Terrifying Potential of a Post-Navalny Russia

On the eve of being sentenced to a five-year term in a penal colony, Alexey Navalny blogged about puffer fish. The Russian opposition would be remiss to think of itself as a school of small fish being pursued by a big predatory fish (i.e. the Kremlin), he wrote on his blog. The predator was simply putting on an act to conceal its weakness.

Нынешняя власть – это не здоровая рыбина, это скорее рыба-шар или латиноамериканская жаба, которая при виде опасности раздувает себя с помощью телевидения, показывающего врущих проституток-телеведущих или чудиков из СК в синих мундирах, лопочущих, что они всех посадят. Ну кого они там могут посадить? Ну 20 человек, ну 50. Ну 100, если сильно постараются. Вот и весь страшенный потенциал.

The current government is not a mighty fish. It’s more akin to a puffer fish or South American toad that puffs itself up in the presence of danger – by means of TV that broadcasts the lying anchor-prostitutes or nitwits from the Investigative Committee in blue uniforms who babble that they can jail everyone. But whom can they jail? Maybe 20 or 50 people. Maybe 100, if they try extra hard. That’s their entire terrifying potential.

Alexey Navalny, screenshot from YouTube.

Alexey Navalny, screenshot from YouTube.

Navalny winked and tweeted his way through the monotonous reading of his 100-page verdict, which he had fully anticipated, his bravado only showing a crack when he embraced wife Yulia before bailiffs escorted him out. For the most part, he used these three hours in the courtroom to populate his Twitter feed with characteristic bursts of snark and glee.

Posting a head shot of grinning Vladimir Putin, he quipped,

Такое впечатление, что только мы с ним вдвоем слушаем приговор без ненужной грусти

I get the impression that he and I are the only ones listening to the verdict without undue sadness.

And once the judge announced a jail term of five years (along with a four-year sentence for his co-defendant and business partner, Pyotr Ofitserov), Navalny used his last tweet to mete out the final bits of advice to his supporters:

Ладно. Вы тут не скучайте без меня. А главное – не бездельничайте, жаба сама себя с нефтяной трубы не скинет.

Alright. Don’t get bored without me. And most importantly, don’t be lazy. The toad won’t knock itself off the oil pipe.

Following an unprecedented filing of an appeal by the Prosecutor’s General’s Office, Navalny was released from custody less than 24 hours after being arrested, until his conviction legally takes effect later this summer. There is even a chance that he will decide to continue his underdog bid for Moscow mayor, a scenario that has certain advantages for the government: it would render the near-certain victory of incumbent Sergei Sobyanin more legitimate.

The verdict sent several thousand protesters—representing at least a small chunk of Navalny’s online army—marching into the streets. Crowding on the sidewalks near the Kremlin and Manezhnaya Square (the intended meeting place that had been locked down just prior under the pretext of construction), they chanted “Navalny is our mayor” and “Navalny, we’re with you.”

Because the protest had not been sanctioned by Moscow administration, protesters risked being arrested and fined. Yet many stayed for at least four hours under the watchful eye of the security forces, who did ship off several busloads of detainees but for the most part were unwilling to escalate the tensions.

For some denizens of the Russian Net, this mass turnout was an indication that even with Navalny behind bars, the movement will throttle ahead. A Yekaterinburg-based blogger, Dmitry Kolezev, tweeted, elatedly:

Получается, болотное дело не сработало, никто не испугался

This means that the Bolotnaya case hasn’t borne results, no one got scared.

Another blogger, designer Artemy Lebedev, voiced the commonly shared hope that even in prison, Navalny will remain at the helm of the Russian opposition, though temporarily in a different, more symbolic role:

Теперь из жж-юзера, который дает ссылки на государственные сайты и зарегистрированные СМИ, мы получим на ближайшие годы героя, который переплюнет Ходорковского, Магницкого и Пусек. Феерическая тупость власти.

Now, in place of the LiveJournal user, who posts links to government websites and registered news sites, we’ll get in the forthcoming years a hero, one who will outshine Khodorkovsky, Magnitsky, and Pussy Riot. An astounding stupidity on behalf of the government.

Navalny himself has asserted repeatedly that the movement he had helped spark has matured enough to become self-sustainable in his absence. This is how he put it in a Wednesday, July 17, 2013, blog post:

[...] понятно что делать, понятно как делать, понятно на что делать. Главное набраться смелости, отбросить лень и делать. Никакого особого руководства и не нужно, на самом деле.

[...] it’s clear what to do, how to do it, and with what means to do it. The most important thing is to muster the courage, get rid of laziness, and do it. No additional guidance is necessary.

And yet, ironically, the July 18 rally showed that Navalny’s army in fact needs quite a bit more coaching on what to do. The crowd that came out in his support on Thursday was thousands strong and swelling with anger and frustration, but it was directionless and, so clearly on this evening, leaderless. Absent were Navalny’s closest associates who accompanied him to Kirov. Absent, too, from both the streets and the Twitter feed was Sergei Udaltsov, another fixture in the opposition movement who once campaigned side-by-side with Navalny, but has since fallen under house arrest and launched his own bid for Moscow mayor.

Among the people who did come, a prominent online sentiment was dark resolution mixed with confusion.

Moscow photographer and popular blogger Ilya Varlamov noted that while attendees were well stocked with pro-Navalny flyers and stickers (many of which ended up on the walls and doors of the Russian Duma) they were less ready when it came to a plan of action:

У людей очень много символики за Навального, хорошо подготовились. Но по-моему, люди не знают что делать.

People have a lot of pro-Navalany paraphernalia, they are well prepared. But it looks like the people don't know what to do.

Activist, blogger, and photographer, Mitya Aleshkovsky, wondered,

Я не понимаю что мы тут делаем. кто всем руководит?

I don’t understand what we’re all doing here. Who is in charge of everything?

And, reflecting the opposition movement’s worrisome tendency to bicker, blogger and journalist Ilya Azar could not help but poke fun at fellow activist and entrepreneur Alena Popova, who is sometimes seen as not committed enough to the cause:

Пришел лидер протеста – Алена Попова. Наконец-то люди не одни

Here comes the leader of the protest, Alena Popova. Finally the people are not alone.

And as the rally wound down, opinions remained divided over how well it went.

Kirill Goncharov, a 21-year-old activist, blogger, and leader of the youth wing of the Yabloko party, tweeted enthusiastically,

Это лучшее, в чем я участвовал в своей жизни. 100 метров от Кремля, атмосфера солидарности и свободы. Свободу Навальному!

This was the best event I’ve ever participated in in my life. 100 meters away from the Kremlin, an atmosphere of solidarity and freedom. Freedom for Navalny!

Yet almost at the same moment, Ilya Azar grumbled,

Откровенно говоря для акции по поводу посадки лидера оппозиции на пять лет в колонию это полный провал

To be totally frank, for an event marking the five-year imprisonment of the opposition’s leader in a penal colony, this is a complete failure.

From both standpoints, though, the outlook would be much brighter with Navalny on the other side of prison bars—and not just for a short reprieve before serving a long five years.

July 18 2013

Russian Nationalists Score Victory in Opposition Council

The Coordinating Council of the Opposition has released [ru] a statement on the ethnic clashes and protests taking place in the town of Pugachev [ru]. First posted to the e-democracy website democratia2.ru [ru] on July 9, the draft was republished [ru] on the Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) website on July 15. By then, it had already been signed by Alexey Navalny, as well as several known nationalist members of the Coordinating Council. The resolution was accepted on July 16, by 10 Yeas and 4 Nays (with 26 abstentions).

A note at the beginning of Ekho Moskvy’s publication of the statement said this of the text:

Некоторые уже называют его националистическим.

Some are already calling it nationalist.

Was it even possible to comment on a matter such as Pugachev without at least touching on some aspect of nationalism? While the majority of the document focuses on the inability and/or refusal on the part of authorities to respond to their constituents (whose demands are to drive the local Chechens from their town), one paragraph was called out for being particularly “nationalist”:

Попытка приравнять к «экстремизму» законный протест коренных жителей против демонстративно вызывающего поведения выходцев из других регионов, которое грубо противоречит местным традициям и моральным нормам, а также упрямое желание со стороны властей сводить происходящее к «бытовым» причинам, напоминает позицию страуса.

The attempt to equate “extremism” and legitimate protest of the local people against the deliberately provocative behavior of people from other regions [i.e. the North Caucasus], which is grossly contrary to local traditions and moral standards, and the stubborn desire on the part of the authorities to reduce what's happening to “common” causes, is reminiscent of an ostrich [hiding its head].

One user on Ekho’s website commented sarcastically:

авторы могут назвать «местные традиции и моральные нормы», которые нарушают «приезжие»?
может быть они имеют в виду повальное пьянство, мат и т.д. и т.п.?

can the authors name any “local traditions and moral standards” that the ”newcomers” violate ?
maybe they are referring to general alcoholism, swearing, etc., etc.?

Over on the Coordinating Council’s website, Professor Mikhail Gelfand voted against the statement and noted:

Требования поголовного выселения по национальному признаку, т.е. тотальных этнических чисток не являются “законным протестом”.

Demands of wholesale ejection on the basis of nationality, meaning total ethnic cleansing, are not “legitimate protest”.

An example a popular image distributed on the RuNet. Emelian Pugachev, 18th century rebel, pretender to the Russian throne, and namesake of the town of Pugachev, says of the two North Caucasians on either side of himself "I've been asleep for a long time, but I'm going to have to eject [them]." Part of the message is probably lost because this portrait of Pugachev looks much scarier than the presumed Chechen youths. Anonymous image freely distributed online.

Emelyan Pugachev, 18th century rebel, pretender to the Russian throne, and namesake of the town of Pugachev, says of the two North Caucasians on either side of himself: “I've been asleep for a long time, but I'm going to have to eject [them].” Part of the message is probably lost because this portrait of Pugachev looks much scarier than the presumably Chechen youths. Anonymous image freely distributed online.

Another Pugachev meme: "I'm sorry, but have you tried ejecting them?" Anonymous image freely distributed online.

Another Pugachev meme: “I'm sorry, but have you tried ejecting them?” Anonymous image freely distributed online.

However, some on Ekho Mosvky's website did not object to the statement at all:

Вполне взвешенный документ, ничего националистического в нем нет.

This is a balanced document, nothing nationalist about it.

Another commenter felt that the real problem was the Kremlin’s refusal to address the issues of inter-ethnic relations in Russia:

Федеральная власть должна высказаться и определиться по поводу взаимоотношения людей различной национальности. Власть должна провести совещание на высоком уровне с представителями различных республик и принять согласованное заявление о национальной политике в России. Сам КСО тоже должен определиться со своей позицией. Я против выселения, я за дружбу народов (как ни по советски это звучит). Но жители всех республик должны понять, что Конституция России действует на всей территории, что надо всем соблюдать права людей и вести себя доброжелательно по отношению друг к другу.

The Federal government should speak out and decide about the relationship between people of different nationalities. The authorities must hold a high level meeting with the representatives of the various republics and accept an agreed statement of national policy in Russia. The CCO [the Coordinating Council] itself must also define their position. I am against ejection [of ethnic minorities], I'm for the friendship of peoples (no matter how Soviet it sounds). But the residents of all of the republics should understand that the Russian Constitution applies to the entire territory, that everyone must respect the rights of all people and behave kindly toward each other.

26 members of the Coordinating Council either did not care enough to vote on the statement, or perhaps thought to distance themselves from it. Only 4 members voted against: biology professor Mikhail Gelfand, journalist and radio host Sergei Parkhomenko, professional oppositionist Ilya Yashin and human rights activist Anna Karetnikova. The 10 members who voted to adopt the statement, included Alexey Navalny, conservative philosopher Konstantin Krylov, the usually liberal journalist Oleg Kashin, and nationalist leader Vladimir Tor. The only non-nationalists to vote for the resolution were members of the so called Navalny's Bloc – Alburov, Naganov, and Sobol. All three work on Navalny's projects outside of the Coordinating Council.

July 17 2013

Russian Blood on the Asphalt, Armenian Hands on the Wheel

It’s not every day in Russia that over a dozen people die in a single traffic collision, so when an Armenian national crashed a freight truck into a bus full of passengers last weekend, killing eighteen, it caught people’s attention. The incident was even captured on amateur dashcam video (see below). Two days after the accident, on July 15, 2013, a Moscow court sanctioned the arrest [ru] of the truck driver, 46-year-old Grachia Arutiunian, whom authorities had recently awakened from an artificially induced coma, which doctors decided was unnecessary, after determining that his injuries (while significant) were not life-threatening. The Armenian driver stands accused of negligent homicide and faces up to seven years in prison.

In conversations online, Arutiunian’s case has stoked the fires of Russia’s unabating nationalist debate, which most recently flared up in the city of Pugachev, where the July 5 murder of an ethnic Russian local by a Chechen youth provoked anti-immigrant street demonstrations.

With Pugachev still fresh in the public’s mind, Russian nationalists have seized on last Saturday’s tragic crash as another government failure to protect the country from lawless immigrants. For example, Vladimir Tor complained [ru] on LiveJournal that people like Arutiunian represent a danger to the public:

Но главное – надо решительно менять ситуацию на дорогах: масса диких шахид-такси, джихад-газелей, камаз-бабаев в ужасающем техническом состоянии и с дикими шоферами за рулём – это постоянная угроза нам всем. Так жить нельзя – этому необходимо положить предел.

But the main thing is that we have to change the situation on the roads decisively: all these wild shakhid-taxis, jihad-shuttles, and truck-babevs [slurs directed at Russia’s Muslim migrant-worker drivers] are all in terrible technical condition and operated by wild drivers behind the wheel. It’s a constant threat to us all. We can’t live like this, and we must put a stop to it.

Writing on the National-Democratic Party’s website, Rostislav Antonov made a similar argument [ru], faulting federal lawmakers for allowing foreign nationals to operate motor vehicles in Russia without obtaining Russian driver licenses, which Arutiunian indeed lacked. (As it happens the government already in April 2013 adopted new legislation [ru] to close this loophole, though it doesn’t take effect until November 5, 2013.)

Many Russian bloggers have also taken issue [ru] with the Armenian community (both its diaspora in Russia, which provided Arutiunian with two defense lawyers, and Armenian bloggers [ar]) for its outpouring of support for the now incarcerated driver. In truth, several dozen Armenians did stage a rally [ru] outside Russia’s embassy in Yerevan on April 16, demanding an end to Arutiunian’s degrading treatment while in custody. Bloggers, too, have reacted sharply to photos of Arutiunian in court, where he appeared on July 15 in a women’s hospital robe and rubber slippers. Covering his tear-strewn face and relying on a translator to understand the court’s Russian-language proceedings (a necessity despite his living in Russia for a decade, nationalists are eager to point out), Arutiunian did appear to be a man thoroughly humiliated.

Screen Shot 2013-07-16 at 6.26.45 PM

Grachia Arutiunian in court, 15 July 2013, screenshot from YouTube.

LiveJournal user maggel offered his own deeply unsympathetic suggestion [ru] for “rehabilitating” the man:

1. Халат снять.
2. Выдать белые тапки.
3. Отвезти в Подольск на тот самый перекресток.
4. Положить обиженного под вот это-

5. Дать порулить агрегатом родственникам погибших.

1. Remove the robe.
2. Issue him some white slippers.
3. Take him to Podolsk, to the same intersection [where the crash occurred].
4. Place the offended [Arutiunian] under this thing:
[an image of a steamroller]
5. Let the victims’ relatives steer the steamroller.

Another LJ user, pavell, attacked expressions of compassion for Arutiunian, but admitted a certain envy for the community’s solidarity. Posting excerpts of a letter [ru] from Armenia’s human rights ombudsman to his Russian counterpart that condemned Arutiunian’s treatment, pavell called [ru] the text arrogant, but wondered aloud which if any state officials were working as devotedly for the protection of Russians:

И всё же, несмотря на плевки в лицо Лукину, завидно. Армянина, убившего в России 18 человек, есть кому защищать. А кто защитит русского? Я не говорю в Армении, а просто в России?

And, yet, despite the [Armenian official] spitting in the face of Lukin [his Russian counterpart], I’m jealous. An Armenian who’s killed 18 people in Russia has someone to defend him. But who would defend a Russian? I’m not even talking about in Armenia—what about just in Russia?

Even if the Moscow court convicts Arutiunian and sentences him to several years in prison, the decision isn’t likely to calm fears that ethnic Russians are a persecuted majority. The prominence of criminal groups tied to certain ethnicities and the ongoing tensions between Russia’s native population and migrant workforce—two of the most significant root causes of the country’s nationalist fervor—aren’t going anywhere. Whether Arutiunian is given back his clothes or executed under a cement truck, Russia’s troubles with race and assimilation haven’t claimed their last victim.

With Russian Netizens Like These, Who Needs Trolls?

The Russian Internet, much like the Internet at large, runs on short cycles of outrage. Bloggers get incensed over a current event, be it a murder in a provincial city [GV] or LGBT rights [GV], but in the span of a week switch their attention to a new thing that angers them. Although sometimes these news cycles repeat, or are recycled, it is still rare for the same event to create two different waves of outrage within the span of a month. Yet, this is essentially what happened this July when Pavel Astakhov, Russia's children's ombudsman, yet again blithely mentioned [ru] the possibility of sending Russian orphans to the North Caucasus for adoption.

Astakhov's earlier, May 30, 2013, statements to that effect (he dubbed the possibility an interesting “experiment”) weren't well received [GV], to say the least. This time, however, Astakhov was more specific — naming Chechnya as an example of a Russian region where orphans are immediately adopted and well taken care of, and promising to chat with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov about the possibility of establishing a process for cross-regional adoption. It appears that his suggestion was particularly tone-deaf given recent ethnic violence between Russians and Chechens [GV] in the town of Pugachev.

Pavel Astakhov gearing up for a day's work. Image remixed by author using "Pavel Atakhov" by Dmitry Rozhkov, 25 November 2011, CC 3.0 Wikimedia Commons.

Pavel Astakhov gearing up for a day's work. Image remixed by author using “Pavel Astakhov” by Dmitry Rozhkov, 25 November 2011, CC 3.0 Wikimedia Commons.

The main gist of the RuNet commentary was predictable — Russian orphans would be sold to white slavery and forced to grow up to become suicide bombers. In fact, it was curious to see how similar the arguments were, although this time RuNet nationalists were perhaps even harsher in their criticisms. LiveJournal user mouglley, for example, hearkened back [ru] to the time when Russian principalities were forced to pay tribute to the Mongolians:

Астахов предложил платить дань еще и детьми, отсылая русских сирот в Чечню, чтобы из них делали чеченцев — самих чеченцев пока еще слишком мало, чтобы установить прямой контроль над Россией.

Astakhov has offered to pay tribute with children, sending Russian orphans to Chechnya, so that they make Chechens out of them — as of now there aren't enough Chechens to establish direct control over Russia.

A different netizen tweeted [ru]:

Всё думаю, вот Астахов хочет чтобы наших сирот воспитывали в Чечне-так как убийцу в Пугачёве? Ах да, зато русские будут резать русских-так?

I keep thinking, does Astakhov want our orphans to be brought up in Chechnya — just like the murderer in Pugachev? Oh yeah, but this way Russians will be killing Russians, right?

Another wondered [ru]:

На органы, в рабство или как?

[Will they harvest them] for organs, enslave them, or what?

To round out the collection, one user of a city forum in the Siberian town of Prokopievsk was quite sure [ru] about the Manchurian Candidate angle:

Лично я уверен, что через несколько лет результаты чеченского воспитания дадут о себе знать в виде светловолосых шахидов …

Personally, I am convinced that in a few years the results of a Chechen upbringing will let themselves be known through blonde suicide bombers …

Unlike the last wave of outrage about orphan slaves, this time even ostensible liberals were incensed. Dmitry Olshansky (a liberal, cosmopolitan publicist with some nationalist tendencies) wrote [ru] in his Facebook:

Это невыносимая по своей гнусности новость. Просто невыносимая.

This news is unbearable in its odiousness. Simply unbearable.

Andrey Malgin, a liberal blogger opposed to the Kremlin, went a different route — he simply made a reference [ru] to a novella by Anatoly Pristavkin [en], which is set in post-Word War II Chechnya (after the Chechen deportation), and follows two Russian orphans, one of whom meets gruesome death by disemboweling at the hands of local Chechens. Malgin left his readers draw their own conclusions.

Of course, it turns out that Astakhov's comments were taken out of context and blown out of proportion. One blogger [ru] contacted Astakhov's press secretary, who explained that Astakhov had only mentioned Chechnya as one region among several others, including Krasnodarsky Krai, which also has good adoption statistics. But that doesn't seem to matter — this particular story no longer incites outrage on RuNet, and will be all but forgotten by the time someone else says something about orphans in the near future.

July 10 2013

Fear and Censorship in Russia's Huffington Post

PublicPost, an internet news publication that for a time sought to become the Russian Huffington Post, met its end last month [ru], when it became the latest in a series of innovative online media to be shut down this year. Founded in 2011 and funded through a collaboration between the state-owned Interfax news agency, Sberbank Bank, and Echo Moskvy's editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktov, PublicPost melded independent and regional blogs with original reporting, while trying to remain even-handed in it's political coverage. When the news of its looming closure were announced in June, 2013, PublicPost's acting editor-in-chief declared [ru] that the project was not meeting with expectations, and its general director said that the reasoning was purely economic — not enough daily visitors [ru] to maintain funding.

PublicPost is shut down completely, not even an archive remains.

PublicPost is shut down completely, not even an archive remains.

With this, PublicPost joins the ranks of recently shuttered Openspace.ru [GV] and Russkaya Zhizn’ [ru], as well as Bolshoi Gorod [ru] (which lost much of its funding and editorial team, but is technically still operational). These projects are alike in that they were ostensibly closed for financial reasons, with political underpinnings vehemently denied by investors. They are also alike because, despite all claims to the contrary, their closure invited a myriad theories that politics was somehow to blame.

That's not to say that some commentators don't see PublicPost as part of an overall trend. To journalist Andrey Miroshnichenko, writing [ru] at Slon.ru, PublicPost is just a symptom of an overall divestment from new media — a divestment caused in equal parts by lack of money, lack of interest, and lack of success. The optimism of the post-crisis years (2009 and 2010) when many of these investments were first made is gone, and now:

Праздник кончился, гирлянду тушат. Для отрасли это тоже грустно, конечно. Где теперь бюджеты? Нет теперь бюджетов. А рынка и подавно нет – с него живут единицы. Что остается? Украина, корпоративные медиа, погружение в ил до следующего цикла.

The party is over, the party lights are going out. This is sad news for the industry, of course. Where are the budgets now? There are no budgets now. And, moreover, there is no [real] market [for innovative media] – it's capable of supporting a few individuals at best. What's left? The Ukraine, corporate media, hibernating in the river mud until the next cycle.

Pro-government blogger Dan Bialik thought [ru] that the real reason was PublicPost's faulty business model:

[...] пабликпоц основывался не на “юзер дженерейтед контент”, а на обычном пиздинге. А по сути, дублировал так называемые “блоги Эха Москвы”, которые тоже всего лишь копии других блогов, и не всегда даже с ведома их авторов. В общем, гавно засохло и вонять перестало, не о чем жалеть совершенно.

[...] publicpotz [sic] was based not on “user generated content,” but on your run-of-the-f*cking-mill theft. And at its core, it cloned the so-called “Echo Moskvy blogs,” which are also simply copies of other blogs, and sometimes without permission by the authors. To sum up, sh*t has dried up and stopped stinking, there is nothing to be upset over.

PublicPost's erstwhile acting editor-in-chief Nikolai Klimeniuk had a different story to tell in a very long post [ru] on his Facebook page. The project was doing fine until it lost its legs in January, 2013, when it's editorial policy was hobbled and a hiring freeze was instituted. The reason, according to Klimeniuk, was that:

[...] что проект воспринимался как резко антипутинский. Генеральный директор PublicPost, он же – заместитель гендиректора Интерфакса Алексей Горшков, объясняя ситуацию, использовал именно это выражение, а не например, «либеральный», «критический» или «оппозиционный». [...] с какого-то момента подчиненные Грефа обращать его внимание на «антипутинские» материалы на PublicPost – в основном это были ругательные блоги [...]

[...] the project was received as starkly anti-Putin. The General Director of PublicPost, who also happens to be Deputy General Director of Interfax, Alexey Gorshkov, used precisely this phrase [anti-Putin] when describing the situation, and not, for instance “liberal”, “critical” or “oppositionary.” [...] at some point [Sberbank Director German] Gref's underlings started directing his attention to “anti-Putin” materials on PublicPost – mostly these were abusive blogs [...]

This, in turn, was due to infighting in the Kremlin administration as Vyacheslav Volodin tried to impose his power over state-owned media, including the Interfax news agency:

PublicPost, по всей видимости, оказался слабым местом одновременно Грефа и Интерфакса. Из разговоров с людьми, информированными о ситуации, у меня сложилась такая картина: Грефу лично делали выговоры за PublicPost Медведев, Сергей Иванов и Володин. [...] Путину приносили распечатки ругательных материалов про него.

PublicPost, it seems, turned out to be the Achilles heel of both Gref and Interfax. From talking to people who have internal information I got the following picture: Gref received personal reprimands from Medvedev, Sergey Ivanov and Volodin. [...] Putin was brought printouts of abusive materials about him.

The catalyst, however, was not a blog, but rather an article about the possible retirement of the heads of Russia's three major TV channels and personnel changes in state-owned media and the President's Administration. It was this article, says Klimeniuk, that brought about tangible meddling with PublicPost's editorial policy:

PublicPost было строго запрещено впредь писать про госмедиа. Рекомендовалось по возможности не писать ничего, при невозможности – ничего острого про первых лиц (Медведева и Путина). [...] Не использовать выражения «закон подлецов», «марш против палачей», «антисиротский закон» и т.п., а использовать только политически нейтральные выражения [...] Рекомендовалось не трогать РПЦ. [...] Было дано (и исполнено) указание стереть все «антипутинские» блоги.

PublicPost was forbidden to write about state-owned media. It was recommended to not write anything, or at least anything biting, about top officials (Putin and Medvedev). [...] Not to use phrases like “law of scoundrels,” “march against butchers,” “anti-orphan law” and so on, but to use only politically neutral phrasing. [...] It was recommended not to touch the Russian Orthodox Church. [...] We received (and executed) a directive to delete all “anti-Putin” blogs.

Facebook user Natalia Konradova had a slightly different take [ru] on what finally broke the camel's back, blaming PublicPost bloggers, rather then their original reporting (her information is admittedly second-hand):

какой-то мудак написал блог с заголовком, в котором были слова “Путин” и “мудак”

some dickhead wrote a blog with a title that included the words “Putin” and “dickhead”

Regardless of the proximate cause, PublicPost deleted numerous individual blogs from their website, and their pre-moderation policy became even stricter. Anastasiya Mironova, a former PublicPost contributor, experienced the new policy first hand [ru]:

[...] вдруг они перестали публиковать мои блоги и заказывать мне репортажи. У меня появилось подозрение на цензуру [...] Посты не принимали под предлогом сменивлшейся политики сайта, которая предполагает лишь репортажный материал в блогах.

[...] suddenly they stopped publishing my blogs and requesting pieces. I started to suspect censorship [...] My posts were not accepted under the pretext of new site policy, which involved only reporting [as opposed to opinion] in blogs.

In the end, none of the compromises worked — after several months the publication was still shut down. The difference is that it went out on a sour note, a sentiment clearly visible in this quip [ru] by Mironova:

Не исключено, что среди тех мудаков, которые написали про Путина, была и я. Однако же блоги премодерировались полностью, так что еще неизвестно, кто мудак…

It's possible that I was among the dickheads that wrote about Putin. But, the blogs were completely pre-moderated, so it's not that clear who is the dickhead here…

July 09 2013

Vigilante Justice & Race Riots in Provincial Russia

A bar fight that broke out last weekend between two young men in a small town of Pugachev in Russia’s central Saratov region, ended with racial violence. The victim, 21-year-old Ruslan Marzhanov, a town local of Tatar extraction, died of knife wounds in the hospital on Saturday, July 6. The suspect, 16-year-old Chechen Ali Nazirov, was later detained for the murder.

What should have been a tragic, but routine case, quickly morphed into something else. The murder underscored long-standing ethnic tensions between the native Russian population and the town's North Caucasian diaspora. After the funeral, which was held the day after Marzhanov died, hundreds of locals marched into a Chechen neighborhood, demanding that the Chechens “leave.” Several people were reportedly injured in the brawl that ensued, although the police maintain [ru] that they were able to prevent the violence.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the victim was reportedly friends with local Chechens. Azamat Mitsaev, a Moscow resident involved with youth city government, reported [ru] on his Facebook that Marzhanov's Chechen friends were the ones who took him to the hospital, and were also apparently the ones to find Ali Nazirov and turn him over to the police, having first “beaten him up.”

The acting Governor of Saratov Oblast, Valery Radaev, urged the people to remain calm, saying [ru]:

Неконтролируемая стихия может повлечь за собой цепную реакцию, в результате чего не исключены новые невинные жертвы. Мы не имеем права такого допустить! [...] кровная месть и национальная ненависть – не способ решения проблем, а бомба замедленного действия”

An uncontrolled force of nature [like a popular uprising] can lead to a chain reaction, resulting in new innocent victims. We cannot allow this! [...] blood feuds and national hatred are not a way to solve problems, but a ticking time bomb.”

His entreaties fell on deaf ears — when Pugachev Mayor Stanislav Sidorov walked out to speak with the crowd that congregated in the town square Monday, he was heckled, reports [ru] Twitter user Liudmila Rossenko:

Главу облили водой. Народ ликует #Пугачев

The Head [of Administration] got water poured all over him. The people are happy #Pugachev

Pugachev Head of Administration addressing the crowd moments before getting a bottle of water poured on his head. YouTube screenshot.

Pugachev Head of Administration addressing the crowd moments before getting a bottle of water poured on his head. YouTube screenshot.

According to locals this was not the first time the Chechens had caused problems. The BBC’s Russian Service quoted [ru] the chairman of the regional branch of the opposition RPR-PARNAS party:

У меня родственники там живут в Пугачеве. Не первый раз у них, четыре или пять убийств уже было. Дагестанцы, чеченцы облюбовали город Пугачев. Эти конфликты у них происходят последние два года все серьезнее и серьезнее. И встает вопрос, почему власть в это до сих пор не вмешивалась?

I have relatives living in Pugachev. This is not the first incident, they've had four or five murders already. Dagestanis, Chechens have taken a fancy to the city of Pugachev. These conflicts have, over the past 2 years become more and more serious.  And the question arises, why don’t the powers that be intervene?

Marzhanov's mother emphasized this point [ru]:

Я не имею претензий к чеченцам, у меня претензии к власти, которая допускает и потворствуют их беспределу.

I have no complaints about the Chechens, I have complaints about the government, which allows and indulges their lawlessness.

Marzhanov's mother addressing the crowd and speaking about her son's military service. YouTube screenshot.

Marzhanov's mother addressing the crowd and speaking about her son's military service. YouTube screenshot.

The Kommersant [ru] newspaper reports that in the meantime, residents of Pugachev have come together in a working group, which will establish “people's patrols” to patrol the town streets along with the police. The people have “lost faith” in the regional government, and seem ready to resort to “vigilante justice.”

The situation is exacerbated by episodes of mass hysteria. For example, a video posted on YouTube [ru] Monday alleged that the authorities had sent armored personnel carriers (APCs) to Pugachev because of the escalating protests. The video, which now has over 200 thousand views, turned out to be a fake, shot last month during local military exercises. This did not prevent it from fooling many bloggers, including the popular opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who used the apparent establishment of martial law as an excuse to sarcastically blog “this is what ‘stability’ looks like.” [ru] Navalny later removed the video from his blog.

Meanwhile, in response to appeals from the local government, the Investigative Committee (Russia's federal investigative agency) agreed [ru] to launch an inquiry into events in Pugachev. This seems to indicate that the federal government is concerned that the situation could still spin out of control. But, perhaps, this is a case of too little, too late. Vigilante justice may still prevail.

July 08 2013

Crooks, Thieves, & the Independent Mayors Who Run Russia

The mayor of Yaroslavl and several of his colleagues will spend the next two months behind bars on extortion charges. Evgeny Urlashov, a former United Russia member who ran as an opposition-friendly independent, won the mayor’s seat roughly a year ago in a highly publicized election that seemed to mark a highpoint in the 2011-2012-winter protest movement. In the midnight hours, earlier this week on July 3, 2013, federal investigators arrested Urlashov and searched his home [ru]. According to some reports, over half a million dollars [ru] was hidden in his neighbor’s apartment, though leaked scans [ru] of the police search records call into question this claim.

Since Urlashov’s arrest and a subsequent court decision to keep him incarcerated until early September, many Russians have wrestled with what they perceive as the mounting evidence of their political system’s inability to tolerate an even slightly empowered opposition. For Muscovites especially, where many anti-Putin-leaning voters are rooting for blogger-turned-politician Alexey Navalny’s mayoral campaign, Urlashov’s fate seems to capture the futility of “changing the system from within.” Bonds such as these help explain why Navalny himself, blogging [ru] from the courtroom floor of his own “show trial” in Kirov, called on Yaroslavl’s denizens to attend a demonstration in support of Urlashov, held the day after his arrest.

Evgeny Urlashov at arraignment, Yaroslavl, Russia, 4 July 2013, screenshot from YouTube.

Evgeny Urlashov at arraignment, Yaroslavl, Russia, 4 July 2013, screenshot from YouTube.

Urlashov’s supposed extortion ring amounts to a rather odd criminal enterprise. According to audio and video [ru] surveillance footage (leaked by investigators to the Kremlin-connected [ru] online tabloid Lifenews.ru), Urlashov is guilty of soliciting and receiving bribes from two local businessmen, both of whom are registered members of United Russia. In other words, police claim that Urlashov approached his political enemies [ru] and demanded kickbacks, effectively handing his rivals the means to destroy him.

Shortly after Urlashov’s arrest, a video (see below) surfaced on YouTube depicting the arrest of the Mayor’s alleged bagman in the bribery gang. Oleg Kozyrev captured the amusement of many when he described [ru] the “tears of emotion” that swelled in his eyes upon noting that police placed a purse under the head of the man being arrested, granting him a pillow presumably to make his detention more comfortable. “Yes, if only they’d arrest me like that!” he exclaimed ironically. Kozyrev’s insinuation, presumably, was that investigators were arresting one of their own—a plant, posing as Urlashov’s crony—in order to frame Yaroslavl’s troublesome mayor for extortion.

In a separate LiveJournal post [ru], however, Anton Tolmachev conducted a frame-by-frame analysis of the video, concluding that the bagman likely used his own purse as a pillow, and that police only later introduced the incriminating suitcase full of money. (The dialogue [ru] following the arrest suggests, oddly, that the suspect had previously confessed to transporting the ill-gotten cash.)

Over the last year [ru], Urlashov has feuded increasingly with Yaroslavl’s governor, Sergey Yastrebov. Even before his arrest last week, Urlashov had faced a police search of his car in March 2013, and United-Russia-led vote of no confidence from the city’s municipal council in June. The last few months have featured a zigzag of political setbacks for the mayor and his expanded appeals to the protest movement, which culminated in a June 19 demonstration speech, where Urlashov pledged [ru] to unseat Yastrebov as governor.

Skeptics see in Urlashov’s history the record of a political opportunist. Journalist and former activist Anastasia Karimova took issue with a Facebook post [ru] by Alexander Baunov, who argued that the arrest of Yaroslavl’s mayor is part of a larger crackdown on Russia’s opposition. “Personally, I don’t consider Urlashov to be an oppositionist,” Karimova responded [ru], citing several examples of his willingness in the past to speak kindly of Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev, his openness to collaborating with members of United Russia, and the apparently “managed news” environment Urlashov has instituted in Yaroslavl, since becoming mayor. (Indeed, some of the mayor’s supporters, like Vladimir Milov [ru], have also faulted Urlashov for replicating to his own advantage in Yaroslavl the kind of television censorship commonly attributed to United Russia throughout the rest of Russia.)

Alexey Roshchin authored what is perhaps the RuNet’s most existential reflection on Urlashov’s situation, offering an elaborate analogy [ru] to the lives of Soviet grocers. According to Roshchin, the public expects more from contemporary Russian mayors than federal funding realities allow them to provide. Comparatively, in Soviet times, grocers were expected to peddle food supplies that were typically 90% unmarketable. In other words, grocers were forced to cheat the public by selling them rotten goods, or risk being accused of embezzling whatever food they couldn’t hawk. All this bred a culture of deceit, necessitated by the shortcomings of the USSR’s centralized economy. In Russia today, political centralization has reproduced that culture in mayors, Roshchin argues:

Конечно, они воровали и воруют! Если мэр ОБЪЕКТИВНО вынужден, скажем, формировать свой «фонд черного нала» для решения НАСУЩНЫХ городских проблем – понятно, что рано или поздно он станет брать из этого «фонда» и на свои собственные нужды. Но печальная правда в том, что если он принципиально НЕ БУДЕТ формировать такой фонд (или еще как-то ловчить с деньгами и «откатами») – у него в городе все просто встанет. Или, выражаясь менее изящно – город просто утонет в говне и мусоре.

Of course [mayors] stole and are stealing! If a mayor OBJECTIVELY needs, let’s say, to form his own “slush fund” to solve the city’s vital problems, it’s clear that sooner or later he’s going to take from this “fund” some money for himself. But the sad truth is that, if he NEVER formed such a fund (or never worked his way to kickbacks of some kind), everything in town would just come to a standstill. Or, to put it less elegantly, the city would simply drown in s**t and trash.

The New Despicableness of Doubting Navalny

Alexey Navalny's closing statement in a trial that could land him in prison for up to six years was a stinging, poignant speech against the current government, which he called a “feudal regime.” The popular anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader stands accused of embezzling $500 thousand worth of lumber from a state-run timber company in Kirov, where he worked as an advisor to that region’s governor. Navalny and his supporters have denounced the hearing as a politically motivated show trial. In his final address to the court, Navalny declared [ru]:

Я заявляю, что и я и мои коллеги, мы сделаем все для того, чтобы уничтожить этот феодальный строй, который делается в России. Уничтожить систему власти, при которой 83% национального богатства принадлежит 0,5% населения.

I state that I and my colleagues are doing everything in order to destroy this feudal order that is being made in Russia. To destroy the system of power under which 83 percent of the national wealth belongs to half a percent of the population.

In a post on his Facebook page, Russian mathematician and economist Alfred Kokh wrote [ru]:

Навальный неправ! У нас не феодальный строй. У нас апартеид: раздельное существование.

Они живут в отгороженных заборами местах, нас и их за одни и те же преступления наказывают по-разному, если кто-то из нас пытается получить их права – то его сажают в тюрьму. Это называется – апартеид.

Найдите, как говорится, десять отличий. Не найдете.

Navalny is wrong! We do not have a feudal system. We have apartheid: a separate existence.

They live in isolated fenced-off places, we are punished differently for the same crimes, [and] if one of us is endeavors to get his rights—he is sent to prison. This is called apartheid.

Find, as they say, ten differences. You will not find them.

Kokh’s note was reposted on the popular social network VKontakte, leading to a debate [ru] between two users about the differences between feudal and apartheid states, with one saying:

так одно и то же. При феодализме рыцари и выше тоже жили отдельно от крестьян, для них были другие законы и т.д.

They are the same. Under feudalism, knights and [those] higher also lived separate from the peasants, there were other laws for them, etc.

To which the second user replied:

рыцари и выше – привилегированная часть население (народа). Апартеид – инородный захватчик.

Knights and [those] higher were a privileged part of the population (of the people). Apartheid [implies] a foreign invader.

"Navalny is watching you." Scene from Navalny's Moscow mayoral campaign HQ, 4 July 2013, photo by Oleg Kozlovsky, CC 2.0.

“Navalny is watching you.” Scene from Navalny's Moscow mayoral campaign HQ, 4 July 2013, photo by Oleg Kozlovsky, CC 2.0.

Whatever the judge decides when the sentence is read out on July 18, Navalny’s closing statement seems to have cemented his place as a moral authority for many Russians. Aider Muzhdabaev, a deputy editor at Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper, wrote [ru] in his blog at Ekho Moskvy:

Последнее слово, с которым выступил Навальный, – простое, понятное, жесткое. Немного корявое, без изяществ, риторической красоты.

Он не оратор, Навальный. И даже, наверное, не политик. Может быть, он националист. Может быть, даже мизантроп, некоторые так говорят. Не знаю…. Но он смелый парень, которого следует по-человечески уважать….

Вот исходя из этого с сегодняшнего дня я и буду думать о Навальном, сверять свои мысли (высказывания) с этим фактом.

Время рассуждений о том, хорош он или плох, на мой взгляд, прошло. Раньше было можно, а теперь подлость.

The last words, delivered by Navalny were simple, clear, and firm. [They were also] a little clumsy and without grace or rhetorical beauty. He is not an orator, Navalny. And even, perhaps, not a politician. Maybe he is a nationalist. Maybe even a misanthrope, as some say. I don’t know…. But he is a brave man who should be respected as a human being….

On the basis of this, today I will think about Navalny, and compare his thoughts (statements) with this fact.

The time for speculating about whether or not he is a good person, in my opinion, has passed. Previously it was possible, but now it is despicable.

For the full text of Navalny’s courtroom speech (in English), please see either here or here.

July 04 2013

How Edward Snowden Divides Russians

When former NSA contractor Edward Snowden left Hong Kong for Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, it placed Russia at the center of what had primarily been an American story. According to a statement issued by the anti-secrecy group Wikileaks on June 23, 2013, Snowden was “bound for the Republic of Ecuador via a safe route for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisors from WikiLeaks.”

Moscow-based journalists scrambled to the airport to try to locate Snowden, while the presence of cars with Ecuadorian diplomatic plates at the airport touched off rumors that Snowden's ultimate destination was Ecuador. Though Snowden was booked on two Aeroflot flights, he failed to materialize on either of them (stranding a number of hopeful journalists who had purchased tickets on an 11 hour flight to Havana).

"Edward Snowden Found." Photo mashup by Rob Tom, 26 June 2013, CC 2.0.

“Edward Snowden Found.” Photo mashup by Rob Tom, 26 June 2013, CC 2.0.

Snowden has not been sighted in Sheremetyevo since he arrived, though Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claims he is still in the transit zone there and has thus “not crossed the Russian border“ [ru]. Snowden has made numerous applications for asylum, but has so far been rebuffed or ignored by most countries. President Vladimir Putin has offered to give asylum to Snowden on the condition that he stop revealing American secrets, but Snowden refused to comply with this condition. His situation is complicated by the fact that his passport has been revoked by the Americans who consider him a fugitive and have charged him with espionage.

Snowden has been a highly controversial figure in America since the leaks. Some believe he is a whistleblower to be lauded, while others consider him a traitor who has endangered civilians. For Russians, his prolonged stay in Sheremetyevo (he remains there as of July 4, 2013) has turned the question of what should be done with him from academic to practical, as his fate now rests largely in Russia's hands.

Some Pro-Kremlin commentators saw Snowden's treatment as indicative of American hypocrisy. The blogger Kristina Potupchik [ru], former press-secretary of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, was particularly damning [ru]:

США заочно предъявили Сноудену обвинение в хищении государственной собственности, раскрытии данных о национальной обороне и умышленной передаче секретной информации посторонним лицам. Он также был заочно лишен американского гражданства. Демократия? Свобода? “Права человека”? “Служить и защищать”? Не, не слышали. Несмотря на очевидное несоответствие официальной позиции США с данными, раскрытыми Сноуденом, штаты решили объявить его преступником национального масштаба, хотя тот, фактически, наоборот раскрыл гражданам реальные угрозы, которые ждут их по милости собственного правительства.

The US has accused Snowden in absentia of stealing of government property, revealing information about national defense, and the willfully transmitting secret information to third parties. He was also stripped of his American citizenship in absentia. Democracy? Freedom? “Human rights”? “Protect and serve”? No, they've never heard of them. Despite the obvious fact that the official position of the US doesn't agree with the facts uncovered by Snowden, the US has labeled him a criminal on a national scale, despite the fact that, really, he has revealed to citizens the real threats they face at the mercy of their own government.

Not every pro-Putin figure took this view. Aleksei Filatov, security expert and vice president of the International Association of Veterans of the Anti-Terrorist Alpha Group, thought returning Snowden to America could be a boon to Russian-US relations and would “force the US to take a look at itself in the mirror” [ru] and reconsider its relations with Russia. A former member of the security services, Filatov took a dim view of Snowden's professional ethics:

C профессиональной точки зрения Сноуден никакой не правозащитник. Это человек, который сознательно выбрал себе профессию, давал подписку о неразглашении служебной тайны, получал за ее соблюдение деньги, но в конечном итоге предал и свою страну, и свою профессию.

From a professional point of view, Snowden is no human rights defender. This man, who willingly chose his profession, signed a non-disclosure agreement and recieved payment, but ultimately betrayed both his country and his profession.

Edward Snowden - Human Rights Defender or Traitor? (Screenshot from Youtube.com)

Edward Snowden – Human Rights Defender or Traitor?
(Screenshot from Youtube.com)

Ironically, this view was shared by anti-Putin activist Akram Makhmutov, who took to Facebook [ru] to voice his frustration at Snowden's perceived collaboration with less-than-savory regimes:

Это Сноуден, ну уж и “борец за права человека”, блин. Одно непонятно, отчего за эти права он вздумал бороться с помощью режимов, в которых эти права и не ночевали (Китай, Россия, Эквадор, Куба). Такое поведение есть признак гуманитарной недоразвитости и отсутствия убеждений. Нет, не правозащитник он, а типичный предатель.

I'll be danmed if this Snowden is a “crusador for human rights.” One thing I don't get is why he decided to fight for these rights with the help of regimes (China, Russia, Ecuador, Cuba) where these rights are nowhere to be found. Such behavior is a sign of a poorly developed sense of humanitarianism and a lack of conviction. No, he's no human rights defender, but just a typical traitor.

Oleg Kozyrev disagreed. While the authorities’ support for Snowden was hypocritical, given their own human rights record, he argued [ru] that  Snowden still deserved to be protected:

Мне не ясно, почему за Эдварда Сноудена не вступились ведущие российские правозащитные организации. Я лично считаю, что сегодня в мире должны быть защищены права не только гражданских лиц, вскрывающих преступления правительств, но должны быть защищены и военные и работники спецслужб. Если военный или работник спецслужб сталкивается с очевидным нарушением базовых прав человека, я бы хотел, чтобы такие люди, не боясь, могли открыто выступать, и быть защищенными и законами своих стран и законами международными.

I don't understand why the leading Russian human rights organizations have not come out in favor of Edward Snowden. I personally think that in today's world, the military and intelligence workers who uncover government crimes should be defended as much as civilians. If a military or intelligence worker comes across an obvious violation of basic human rights, I would want that person to be able, unafraid, to come out openly, and be protected by the laws of their own country and by international laws.

Some people saw the black humor in Snowden's kafkaesque sojourn in “the neutral zone.” One Twitter post [ru] by user yasvidirov received over 140 retweets:

“Зато теперь я мэр Шереметьево,” – подбадривал себя Сноуден, чекинясь в сотый раз.

“Well, now I'm the [foursquare] mayor of Sheremetyevo [airport],” Snowden consoled himself, checking in for the hundredth time.

Other users have simply lost patience with the story, which has been developing for over a week and a half. Fashion model Tanya Stychinskaya, for instance, recently tweeted [ru]:

От фамилии Сноуден уже тошнит

I'm already sick of hearing Snowden's name

In Russia, as in his native country, Snowden is a divisive figure, bringing to the fore the intrinsic conflict between the need for government openness, the individual's right to privacy, and the need for security services to carry out certain work in secret. In the debate over Snowden's character and his ultimate fate, most RuNet users seem to have glossed over the details of what the programs he uncovered actually entail. And perhaps most surprisingly, few have noted the similarity of these details to Russia's own monitoring program, SORM, which (unlike PRISM) is no state secret.

Russia's #1 Social Network Attacked Abroad

Between continuing accusations of enabling music piracy and the legal troubles of its young CEO Pavel Durov [GV], Russian Facebook clone VKontakte has recently seen more than its fair share of trouble from the Russian government. The most recent batch, however, comes courtesy of the Ukrainians.

On June 26, 2013 Nikolai Durov, Pavel's older brother and VKontakte co-founder, reported [ru] that Ukrainian authorities have seized VKontakte's Ukrainian-based servers. Because VKontakte is popular with Russian speaking Ukrainians, the network keeps “caching” servers in Kiev in order to facilitate speedy access to music and video files for Ukrainian users. It was these servers that were confiscated by local police, which Pavel Durov claims led to a service slow down [ru]:

В результате видео- и аудиоконтент у украинских пользователей грузится медленнее, так как все данные доставляются напрямую из Петербурга.

As a result, the video and audio content loads slower for Ukrainian users, since all the data are being delivered straight from St. Petersburg.

The Ukrainians were apparently investigating tax evasion on the part of an unrelated company, whose financial documents they say could have been located on the servers. N. Durov bitterly wrote [ru] that this was simply a pretext:

Иначе говоря, доблестные украинские полицаи изъяли наши сервера без каких-либо законных оснований, а теперь, наверное, будут вымогать деньги (или тонну сала?) за возврат нам нашего же оборудования, а если не получится — продадут его налево.

In other words, brave Ukranian polizei removed our servers without any legal basis, and now they will probably extort money (or a tonne of salted pork fat?) from us for the return of our own equipment, and if that doesn't work they will sell it.

According to Pavel Durov, if the Ukrainian police were to actually sell the servers they would get a pretty penny — in his post on the subject he noted that the equipment costs around half a million dollars [ru]. Later, Nikolai Durov broke that number down [ru], explaining that VKontakte uses expensive servers that are filled with solid state drives, and cost around $25,000 each.

Pavel Durov cares this much. YouTube screenshot. July 3, 2013.

Pavel Durov cares this much for Ukrainian police. YouTube screenshot. July 3, 2013.

Ukrainian authorities claimed [ru] that they were not aware that the equipment they confiscated belongs to VKontakte — they were merely targeting the firm that provides space [ru] for the servers. Nikolai Durov begged to differ [ru]:

Насколько мне известно, забрали в точности наши сервера. По всей видимости, заказ был именно на них.

As far as I know they took precisely our servers. Apparently the hit was taken out for them specifically.

N. Durov did not say what the reason for this was, but he guessed [ru] that there is either a monetary motive, or the whole debacle is part of some competition between Ukrainian internal security forces. A few days later, on July 1, N. Durov published an update of the situation, saying that the Ukrainian police are still in possession of the servers, and are looking through them in order to find something that'll stick, or maybe even set VKontakte up:

Ясно, что при желании можно найти на дисках что угодно — например, предварительно списав туда свою коллекцию детской порнографии. [...] Наверняка через неделю-другую появится пресс-релиз доблестных украинских полицаев, “раскрывших” преступление века, и обнаруживших на наших серверах всё что им угодно — хоть переговоры Саддама Хуссейна с Бен Ладеном.

Clearly, if there is a will there is a way of finding anything you want on the disks — for instance, by recording your child pornography there first. [...] In a week or two, for sure, there will be a press-release by the brave Ukrainian polizei, who have “solved” the crime of the century and found all they wanted on our servers — up to and including talks between Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden.

In the meantime, VKontakte is working on housing its new servers in Germany.

July 03 2013

The Day Russia's Libraries Stood Still

On July 2, 2013 three of Russia's popular online libraries blocked user access to their websites and collections as a way to protest a new law aimed at combating internet piracy (see RuNet Echo coverage here [GV]), which passed Russia's lower house of parliament on June 21, 2013. For a period of 24 hours any visitor of Flibusta.net [ru], Maxima-Library.org [ru], or CoolLib.net [ru] was redirected to identical black error-screens, with an image that read “Error 451F” [a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Ray Bradbury novel] at the top of the page.

Error message found on Russian library websites on July 2, 2013. Screenshot.

Error message found on three Russian library websites on July 2, 2013. Screenshot.

Below lay the following message:

Государственная Дума разрабатывает серию законов, которые дадут чиновникам возможность заблокировать любой сайт в Рунете. Быстро и безнаказанно. Первая ступень уже принята и вступит в действие 1 августа. Следующие запланированы на осень. Через год многие сайты могут выглядеть вот так. Что делать? Протестовать. На их стороне деньги, власть и врожденная анацефалия. На нашей – техника, наука и устремления миллионов людей.

The State Duma is working on a series of laws which will allow bureaucrats to block any RuNet website. Quickly, and without consequences. The first stage has already passed [the current law deals only with video content, A.T.] and will come into effect on August 1. The subsequent stages are planned for the fall. In a year, many websites could look like this [one currently does]. What to do? Protest. On their side is money, power and congenital brain failure. On ours — technology, science and the aspirations of millions of people.

The pages also linked to an online petition [ru] hosted at OnlinePetition.ru, which currently has just under 80,000 signatures. (Interestingly, while there was also a link to the Russian Online Initiative webpage [GV], there is no associated petition there.) The petition calls for the repeal of the law, describing it as unjust and harmful to Russia's economy.

The three online book repositories are not alone in their protest. Earlier, on June 24, several Russian websites run by the entertainment conglomerate “Look at Media” pulled a similar stunt [ru], shutting down their services for an hour with a similar message — a black screen saying “this is pretty much what it will be like come August 1″. Rublacklist, an internet watchdog associated with the Russian Pirate Party, has also been strongly critical of the law and has called for a general internet “strike” [ru] on August 1, when the law comes into effect.

Meanwhile, Russian programmers are working to make such a strike a possibility. For example, one user of the Russian tech-blog Harbrahabr has created a JavaScript based application that allows webmasters to easily implement a blackout. The script has a few neat features. For one, while it blocks users from accessing the webpage, it comes with an optional “Continue” button that allows users to use the website after they view the message. It also comes with all sorts of “social” buttons, which will allow people to like, tweet, and otherwise share the information on social networks.

A proposed blackout mock-up created by an anonymous programmer on Habrahabr.ru. Screenshot, July 2, 2013.

A blackout mock-up proposed by an anonymous programmer on Habrahabr.ru. Screenshot, July 2, 2013.

The reasoning behind the proposed blackouts is the same as that which led the Russian Wikipedia to strike for a day last July [GV], when it protested against censorship proposals couched in terms of defending Russia's minors. Critics of the anti-piracy law maintain that just like last year's legislation, which resulted in the creation of a Russian internet blacklist [GV], the true intentions of the legislators lie elsewhere. A Habrahabr user described the law in the following way [ru]:

Готовящиеся и уже принятые законы не направлены на решение проблем современного копирайта. Антипиратская реторика используется в качестве прикрытия для цензуры и окукливания Рунета.

Both the upcoming and the already adopted laws are not aimed at solving the problems of modern copyright. Anti-piracy rhetoric is being used as a cover for the censorship and closing off of the RuNet.

Of course, unlike Wikipedia, the three websites that were striking on July 2 do in fact host a lot of pirated content (along with many public domain works a la Project Gutenberg), which lends a certain ironic air to their rhetoric. It should be said that reading pirated versions of e-books is perhaps the simplest thing one can do on the RuNet — no downloads, torrents or peer-to-peer networks are required. Simply go to one of the many websites that host online libraries, search for a book, click on the link, and read in your browser. Because most of the content is in Russian, these websites have so far failed to attract the ire of the international anti-piracy forces.

But even if they had, the Russian reading community is extremely resilient — for instance Flibusta.net (with an Alexa rank of 645 in Russia it is the most popular of the blackout participants) is pretty much a clone of an older website called Lib.rus.ec, which incidentally did not take part in the blackout. A few years ago Lib.rus.ec [ru], the biggest pirated e-book website at the time, “sold out,” or went legitimate, (depending on one's point of view) and started to charge a monthly fee for e-book downloads (it is still possible to access and read the books for free through the website). That's when someone created Flibusta, a website that mirrors Lib.rus.ec's content. Presumably, if the current crop of online libraries gets shut down something similar will eventually happen. In such circumstances Nikolai Durov, brother of Pavel Durov, co-founder of the social network VKontakte, and a critic of the anti-piracy law, doubts [ru] that trying to involve the general public will work:

Я не особо верю в действенность подобных мер. Возможно, они нужны для очистки совести — “не говорите потом, что мы не предупреждали.”

I don't really believe in the efficacy of such measures. Maybe they are there for a clear conscience — “don't tell us that we didn't warn you.”

Durov is probably right — unlike the successes of the Internet lobby in the US in defeating SOPA, Russian “freedom of information” forces appear to be fighting a losing battle. Although, perhaps if Durov's website were to shut down for an entire day there would enough of a public outcry to effect change.

July 02 2013

Russia's Amnesty Proposal Tests Entrepreneurial Attitudes

A recent survey [ru] conducted by Russian polling firm FOM found that only 5% of Russians say they are involved in “entrepreneurial activity,” concluding:

Главными препятствиями для открытия собственного дела россияне считают высокие налоги, недостаточную поддержку со стороны государства и высокую коррупцию.

Russians say that they consider high taxes, lack of state support, and high corruption levels to be the main impediments to starting their own business.

FOM also asked [ru] its survey respondents why they think people in Russia engage in entrepreneurial activity. 72% said they think the main reason people go into business for themselves is to earn more money.

When asked why they did not have their own business, 17% of respondents answered that they were too old, 8% said they lacked the necessary skills, 7% replied that they already had a job, and 6% answered it was simply too difficult. Nearly half of those polled did not answer the question at all.

The government is clearly concerned about this trend, and believes that such attitudes are stifling economic activity. To that end, Boris Titov, the Presidential Commissioner for Entrepreneurs’ Rights, has proposed an amnesty program for economic crimes. Under his plan, some 10,000 men and women incarcerated for economic crimes would be freed, though amnesty would be limited to first-time offenders who also agreed to repay the damages of their crimes.

Speaking to investors at the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said [en], “It’s not just an act of humanity; it’s a signal to our supervisory bodies that we have a chance to reorganize the environment for entrepreneurs.”

Putin addresses the plenary session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, 21 June 2013, Russian Presidential Press Service, public domain.

Putin addresses the plenary session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, 21 June 2013, Russian Presidential Press Service, public domain.

Titov defended the planned amnesty in an interview, saying, “So this is the logic of the amnesty – yes someone will (be let) out who really committed a crime, but it’s better to do this than to keep a really innocent person – even one – in jail.”

Valery Fedotov, a United Russia Duma deputy representing Saint Petersburg, shared his own thoughts about Titov’s amnesty in a blog post [ru], titled “Who Needs This Amnesty?”:

Предложенная Путиным экономическая амнистия устроена хитро: реальным жуликам по ней выйти проще, чем невиновным и оклеветанным.

По поводу проекта экономической амнистии, основательно урезанного в процессе согласования с Кремлем, хочу заявить, что как политику, мне очевидно: данный проект – компромисс между экономическим блоком Кремля и всевластными силовиками.

Putin’s proposed economic amnesty is artfully arranged: the real crooks get through the process easier than the innocent and maligned.

According to the draft amnesty, thoroughly trimmed in the negotiation process with the Kremlin, I want to point out that, as a politician, it is clear to me that this project is a compromise between the Kremlin’s economic bloc and the omnipotent security forces [the siloviki].

Meanwhile, Fedotov pointed out, Titov’s original proposal had been edited to ensure that ex-Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky would not be eligible for early release.

"Mentality is our prison." An anonymous demotivator widely distributed online.

“Mentality is our prison.” An anonymous demotivator widely distributed online.

Fedotov’s blog post brought out the skeptics [ru]:

Чтобы выпустить на свободу невинным и оклеветанным, нужно проводить не амнистию, а дополнительное следствие по их делам, дабы убедиться в том, что данные лица действительно невинно оклеветаны. Амнистия – не средство борьбы с судебными ошибками и преступлениями. Она направлена на действительно виновных, по крайней мере, тех, кого власть имущие считают таковыми.

In order to release the innocent and slandered, what we need isn't amnesty, but an additional investigation of their cases to ensure that these people were indeed innocently slandered. Amnesty is not a means to combat judicial errors and crimes. It is directed at the truly guilty, or at least those whom the powers that be consider as such.

Another commenter remarked [Ru]:

Мне тоже режет ухо термин “амнистия”. Амнистия подразумевает милость к виноватому. Иными словами, абсолютно правая власть дарует милость виновным перед ней.

Вот эта твердая несгибаемость есть признак уязвимости.

Мне пришло на память, как в России давали свободу крепостным: была объявлена “высочайшая милость императора”.

The term “amnesty” also grates on my ears. Amnesty implies mercy for the guilty. In other words, the high and mighty authorities grant mercy to those guilty before them.

It is this hard inflexibility that is a sign of vulnerability.

I am reminded that in Russia, when freedom was given to the serfs, it was declared “the supreme mercy of the Emperor.”

One commenter was more blasé [ru]:

Лучше чем ноль.

It’s better than nothing.

To which Fedotov replied:

С этим не поспоришь.

There is no disputing that.

July 01 2013

Croatia Joins European Union Amid Cheers, Skepticism, Apathy

After nine years of waiting, Croatia has joined the European Union as its 28th member state.

But response to the Balkan state's entry on July 1, 2013 appeared to be lukewarm, with the majority of positive online commentary coming from the country's media and politicians. Few Croats celebrated on social media, with many more meeting the date with little to no mention, a change from the weeks leading up to Croatia joining the EU when lively online conversations treated the EU prospect with sarcasm and skepticism.

Croatia enters the EU with one of the lowest ranked GDP's of the bloc, with the country's GDP per capita amounting to 61 percent of the average GDP per capita in the other 27 member states, just above Romania with 49 percent and Bulgaria with 47 percent, according to data from Eurostat. The country as joins the union with the third highest unemployment rate of any member state, which was 18.1 percent in April 2013 compared with the EU average of 11 percent.

On Facebook, the sentiment among Croats was seen by following the hashtags #Hrvatska [hr] and #CroatiaEU. Facebook pages such as Occupy Croatia and Anonymous Croatia shared a photo from Zagreb in which a crowd of people push each other to receive gift packages of food from European food retailer Lidl, as part of the celebration of Croatia's accession into the union.

There was no euphoria to be felt among users on Twitter. Official statements about the celebration and protocol could be seen, as well as debates as to whether or not this would bring positive change to Croatia's economy and social matters. But there were very few affirmative comments or images.

The vast majority of tweets under hashtags #Hrvatska and #CroatiaEU were from news outlets and messages from other European citizens welcoming Croatia to the union. After celebrating last night and counting down the minutes to their official entry into the EU, Croats seem to be a little quieter on social networks today.

In the days prior to Croatia's entry, many Twitter users seemed apprehensive of the event and upcoming celebrations. Twitter user Jack Burton Jr (@JackBurtonJrwrote:

@JackBurtonJr: Hrvatska je ostvarila svoje višestoljetne ciljeve, priključila se EU i NATO-u, utvrdila svoju poziciju bedema Zapada i kud sad?

@JackBurtonJr: Croatia has achieved its centuries-long goals, it has joined the EU and NATO, confirmed its position to the pillars of the West and where to now?

Another user on Facebook, Ivan Radman, had this to say, as he shared a photo of a scruffy man searching through trash cans for food next to a poster of a menu listing several popular dishes and bearing the header “European Menu”:

Hrvatska je bogata onoliko koliko je bogat njezin najsiromašniji stanovnik. Nikakvi drugi indeksi ne zaslužuju biti mjerilo blagostanja. Nojevi smo i magarci. Izgubili osjećaj zajedništva i dopustili ovo. Mene je sram.

Croatia is as wealthy as its poorest citizen. No other indexes deserve to be the measure of good life. We are ostriches and donkeys. We have lost a sense of unity and have allowed this. I am ashamed.

Some on social media even feared that Croatia will relive the Greek scenario of the past twenty years in the European Union of becoming, or in this case remaining, one of the economically weakest countries in the Union.

The one thing to cast a shadow on the monumental date was the last minute cancellation of an official trip to the capital city of Zagreb by German Chancelor Angela Merkel. Merkel's decision brought some negative feedback from Croatian citizens and some wondered if they were being shunned instead of being welcomed into the union.

Bobo Weber, a Croatian political analyst, when asked if and how the German leader's decision to not attend Croatia's state celebrations on the eve of its entry into the EU, stated in an interview with Al Jazeera Balkans that he doubted her decision had much to do with the her view of Croatia as part of the European family and that Croatia's fresh EU membership would develop as planned:

The current Croatian opposition, however, sees other reasons for Merkel cancelling her trip [hr], citing the Croatian government's recent legislative amendments that aim to put a time limit on European arrest warrants, in which case Germany would not be able to extradite former Yugoslavia State Security Administration agent Josip Perković, who is wanted for murder and lives in Croatia.

Croatian news portal Vijesti.hr [hr], with live updates of more than 300 news sources from Croatia, tweeted a Deutche Welle article that speculates on this recent legislature, the Perković case and its possible ties to Angela Merkel cancelling her visit to Croatia on this important date:

Ovo nije njemačka pljuska Hrvatskoj, nego hrvatska pljuska demokraciji! – article -

This is not a German slap to Croatia, it's a Croatian slap to democracy! – članak -

Regardless, the country's politicians celebrated the entry into the EU online. Croatian Deputy Prime Minister Neven Mimica (@MimicaEUsaid this on his brand new Twitter account:

@MimicaEU: Hrvatska je u Europskoj uniji. Ponosan sam biti Hrvatom i Europljaninom NM #CroatiaEU

@MimicaEU: Croatia is in the European Union. I am proud to be a Croat and a European NM #CroatiaEU

Marija Lugarić (@marija_lugaric), a representative in Croatian Parliament, also tweeted in the morning Croatia joined the union:

@marija_lugaric: I tak… Eto nas u EU :)

@marija_lugaric: And so… Here we are in the EU :)

Austrian portal Die Presse Politik (DiePresse_Pol) was among the first to welcome Croatia to the European family on Twitter, in Croatian:

@DiePresse_Pol: Dobro došla Hrvatska http://bit.ly/17ls2sQ

@DiePresse_Pol: Welcome Croatia http://bit.ly/17ls2sQ

Twitter user Darko Horvatić (@komarac_) sarcastically wrote:

@komarac_: došla teta EU ko se nije skrijo, magarac je bijo…

@komarac_: Auntie EU is here, last one to hide is a rotten egg…

So far, a group of netizens from Poland were some of the most cheerful and original in wishing Croatian citizens a warm welcome on a special webpage set up just for this occasion that says “Hrvatska welcome to .EU”. Some Croatian citizens, however, didn't seem so thrilled, like Twitter user Asteroid B612 (@marina_b612):

@marina_b612: Stanovnike EU razlikujem od ostalih po tome sto ove ostale razumijem sta pricaju…

@marina_b612: I differentiate citizens of the EU from the others by the fact that I understand what the others are saying…

Roberto Beličanec, Macedonian Media Expert and Vocal Activist, Dies

Macedonian media expert, activist and blogger Roberto Beličanec died of heart attack [mk] on June 29, 2013 at the age of 41.

Beličanec was one of the few remaining publicly vocal proponents of liberty and human rights in the country, daring to speak the truth to power [mk]. He had a large social media following as a result of his courage to openly speak against the misuse of power, against corruption, censorship, and hate speech (which he deemed “verbal violence”), combining his wast expertise with wit and kindness.

After a distinguished career in journalism, including working for Fokus weekly in the 1990s, Beličanec served as a media expert and was instrumental in implementing the inclusive process for enacting the 2005 Broadcasting Law. As an activist, he was a founding member of Citizens for European Macedonia.

"Silence is not a solution" - Roberto Beličanec, 1972-2013. Photo shared as meme.

“Silence is not a solution” – Roberto Beličanec, 1972-2013. Photo shared as meme.

In the last several months, as director of the Media Development Center, Beličanec was engaged in a strenuous [mk] struggle against the new all-encompassing Media Law, intended to provide a legal means for total control over freedom of expression in Macedonia. His latest expert contribution was within an analysis of this draft law (pdf).

As a reaction to this draft law, Beličanec recently moved his blog “This is not America” from a domestic to foreign platform. His final blog post [mk] condemned a recent instance of endemic homophobic violence, a night stoning attack on the home of the family of actor & human rights activist Petar Stojkovikj who publicly announced his homosexuality, drawing parallels to 1930s Nazi pogroms. In his last Facebook post [mk], referring to propaganda intended to soften the perceptions of stalled international integrations of Macedonia, he asked:

И сега? Како? Уште 7 години ќе се занимаваме со вуду економија и вуду политика?

And now what? How? Shall we spend seven more years on voodoo economics and voodoo politics?

Fellow bloggers [mk, mk], journalists and other social media users posted mementos to Beličanec, also publishing his links or quotes as Facebook statuses, and expressed outrage at several (quickly removed) gloating comments [mk]. One often shared quote included an excerpt [mk] from an interview with а local portal from his native town of Prilep:

… Односот кон институциите секогаш ми бил конфликтен – да се почитуваат, но да се менуваат за да им служат на луѓето, а не луѓето да им служат на институциите. Тоа е слободно живеење и тоа не се сменило. Не трпам паши и друг тип на феудалци. Немам респект кон моќта, а уште помалку кон силата. Не верувам дека наведната глава сабја не ја сече – напротив – најлесно ја сече, само треба да се спушти раката. Не верувам дека човекот е способен да создаде совршена творба. Мора вечно да се менуваме за да опстанеме и да просперираме. Не знам дали сум бил бунтовен како средношколец – веројанто сум бил… Но не сум бил бунтовен без причина. Моите бунтови секогаш имаат и цел и причина. Не е тоа дифузен бунт на човек кој не знае зошто е гневен… О, не! И тоа како добро знам што и кој ми смета и зошто. И никогаш тоа не заради мене и заради мои лични цели, секогаш тоа е поширока приказна околу која се врти приказната за слободата. Не само мојата лична, туку и на другите. Слободата е основен предуслов за самоостварување на човекот . Не мислам дека трпењето спасува…

Трпењето создава робови. Ваквите ставови ми овозможиле да изборам некоја лична слобода никој да не ме управува, никој да не ме насочува и никој да не ме злоупотребува. Можам денес да мислам, да зборувам, да работам и мирно да си се гледам во огледало знаеќи дека никој нема да ми се појави на врата и да побара да вратам некој долг со нешто што не сакам да направам. Не е малку!

…My relationship with the institutions was always conflicting – they should be respected, but also changed to serve the people, and not the people to serve the institutions. That is what I consider a free life and that has not changed. I cannot stand [pashas] or any other type of feudal lords. I have no respect for power, and even less for brute force. I do not believe [a defeatist folk proverb] that “a bowed head is not cut by the sabre” – on the contrary, such heads are cut most easily, the executioner needs just to let his hand fall down. I do not believe that a human being is capable of creating perfection. We eternally need to change to survive and prosper. I do not remember being a rebel in high school – I probably was… But I was never a rebel without a cause. My rebellions always have a goal and a purpose. It is not a diffused rebellion of a man who does not know why he is angry… Oh, no! I very well know who and why is bothering me. And I never speak out only because of me and my personal goals, it is always a wider story related to the story of liberty. Not only my personal freedom, but also others'. Freedom is a precondition for self-realization in human beings. I do not think that putting up [with oppression] can save you…

Tolerating [oppression] creates slaves. These positions enabled me to win some degree of personal freedom – so nobody can rule over me, no one to direct me and nobody to abuse me. Today I can think, talk, work and peacefully look at the mirror, knowing that nobody can come to my door and ask me to return a debt with something that I would not like to do. And that is not a small thing!

Roberto Beličanec is survived by his loving wife and three small children.

June 29 2013

Russians Celebrate Number One Political Prisoner's Birthday

Mikhail Khodorkovsky spent his 50th birthday — June 26, 2013 — in a prison cell in Karelia, a northern Russian republic bordering Finland. The former oil tycoon was arrested in October 2003 on charges of fraud and tax evasion.  In 2010, while serving out his first sentence, he was charged and convicted on charges of embezzlement from his oil company Yukos. Khodorkovsky maintains that the charges against him are politically motivated.

M. B. Khodorkovsky, CC3.0 Unported.

M. B. Khodorkovsky, CC3.0 Unported.

In a long interview that The New Times released to commemorate his birthday, Khodorkovsky, due to be released in 2014, was not optimistic about his chances for freedom [ru]:

А вообще мне уже трудно представить возможность освобождения: десять лет тюрьмы — не шутка.

But in general it is difficult for me to imagine the possibility of release: ten years in prison is no joke.

One commenter noted [ru]:

Непонятно, чего они боятся, почему не хотят их выпускать. Ходорковский, при всем уважении, никогда не собирался быть героем-освободителем.

I don’t understand what they [the authorities] are afraid of, why they don’t want to release them [Khodorkovsky and his co-defendant Platon Lebedev]. Khodorkovsky, with all due respect, was never going to be a hero-liberator.

Meanwhile, a poll recently released by Levada Center [ru] found that 33% of Russians support an early release. When asked why they thought Khodorkovsky remained in prison, 47% of respondents thought it was because the authorities did not want him freed. However, Levada also reported that nearly 90% of Russians are not interested in and do not care about Khodorkovksy.

In Moscow, a group of approximately 200 gathered with placards to celebrate Khodorkovsky’s birthday, and draw attention to his imprisonment. Police later detained and promptly released more than 40 participants for holding an unsanctioned rally, a charge the organizers denied. Another protest in Tomsk attracted a paltry 40 people in total.

Many people sent Khodorkovsky online birthday messages. His press service gave people the opportunity to post messages of 140 characters online.  It also published video messages from around the world.

Opposition blogger Alexey Navalny wished Khodorkovsky “health & freedom” [ru] for his birthday.

Navalny’s short LiveJournal post garnered 881 comments, some of which were critical:

не нравится мне выделение ходорковского из кучи других несправедливо осужденных. Мы его хотим поздравить потому что он богатый?

I don’t like singling out of Khodorkovsky from the many others wrongfully convicted. Are we congratulating him because he is rich?

And:

Пусть сидит. И всех его бывших товарищей-олигархов к нему туда.

Let him [remain in prison]. And all of his other fellow oligarchs can join him.

There were also some well-wishers, however:

C днем рождения! Здоровья и сил! И свободы, конечно. Не только внутренней

Happy Birthday! Health and strength! And freedom, of course. Not only internal [freedom].

Another said:

Каковы бы ни были реальные грехи Ходорковского, желаю ему стойкости и веры в то, что правосудие свершится.

Whatever the real sins of Khodorkovsky, I wish him strength and faith that justice will be done.

Nearly 10 years after his arrest and conviction, Russian society remains largely apathetic about Khodorkovsky. Those who do care are divided about both his guilt and its consequences.

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