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2012- The Year that Social Media Saves Russia?

Much has been made of the popular protests following the recent 2011 Duma elections, which again saw widespread accusations of fraud at the ballot box. The predetermined results saw the Kremlin's ruling party, United Russia, again come out ahead in the final count, although with a significantly lesser percentage of votes (49.32%) than was expected. Now, this may seem like a big deal, and that United Russia may now actually have to listen to the minority opposition parties - but considering that both A Just Russia (13.24%) and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's tragi-comic Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (11.64%) are "opposition" parties in name only (A Just Russia having been a Kremlin creation on a model which it thought an "opposition" party should be made up of, and the LDPR which has never significantly deviated from the Kremlin's lead on anything legislative,) this is really not the case, and the new Duma will be every bit as much of a rubber-stamp legislative body with no real say in anything.

None of this should come as any kind of surprise, where the establishment of any legitimate opposition will continue to be permanently hamstrung by the Kremlin's iron grip on just about every media outlet in the country. Vladimir Putin's idea of hijacking elections doesn't get a lot of comparison to Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko's overt methods of jailing other presidential candidates, but perhaps they should - neither country has anything remotely resembling a free and independent media. The Kremlin owns all of the major TV news channels and almost all of the print media that matters. There are notable exceptions, such as Novaya Gazeta (partly owned by Mikhail Gorbachev, whose continued unpopularity in Russia taints Novaya Gazeta by association) and the respected commercial newspaper Kommersant. However they are on a short leash - as Kommersant staff found out when they published the picture of a ballot defaced by a voter with an obscene reference to Putin (the long time managing editor was swiftly dismissed.) Putin's cabal will no doubt reject such comparisons to the situation in Belarus, often referred to as "the last Soviet Republic," but when a careful comparison is done between the lack of independent media in the two countries (and the high mortality or "disappearance" rate of courageous journalists who do dare to go against the grain), there's much more similarity than disparity. Russia does have two notable opposition journalists that remain too popular to effectively muzzle (which is two more than currently exist in Belarus), Echo of Moscow's Yulia Latynina and the lawyer turned corruption exposing blogger Alexei Navalny. But when Latynina and Navalny start to resemble a credible voice for the opposition, it will remain to be seen how their relative freedoms of expression will be countered by the Kremlin - Navalny was recently jailed for 15 days, his blog has been hacked, and he has been the target of government investigations spurred by unproven allegations of his own corrupt activity.

Where the similarities end is social media and the internet. While Belarus is not on the level of China as far as censorship of the internet, it isn't that far off the mark, and the Belarusian authorities have imported and used Chinese software in blocking off certain websites during times of crisis, such as in the November 2010 Presidential elections. Although Putin has made comments critical of social media and decrying their role as agents of Western influence in the past, so far the Kremlin has not made a move to block the access of ordinary Russians to the internet, preferring a more shadowy path (the hacker attacks against Navalny's blog and the radio station Echo of Moscow's website and live streaming audio.) However, how long this unfettered access to the internet and social media will remain in place is a question for 2012, as the recent mass protests in Moscow were fueled almost entirely by Facebook, the Russian language Facebook clone Odnoklasniki.ru, and Twitter. How effective these social media outlets were can be measured in the turnout for the 24 December protest - over 100,000 protesters turned out on Prospekt Akademika Sakharova, a mass protest that hasn't been seen in such numbers since the heady days of August 1991 and the abortive coup attempt against Gorbachev.

Why is this significant? Because in Russia, social media for the first time in world affairs has indicated the possibilities that it possesses as a significant engine for change. The Arab Spring of 2011 saw social media take a significant part in what happened in Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt, but those countries for the most part were not "wired" to the extent that Russia is - internet accessibility and usage in Russia has exploded exponentially with the emergence of a Russian consumer middle class, and it will be a very difficult problem for the Kremlin to "unring the bell,"  so to speak, at this point of economic and social progression. Furthermore, media outlets in Russia are trending more and more to the Internet and away from print media, something that has been happening in the West for over a decade and which bears all the hallmarks of an unstoppable juggernaut within the Russian Federation.

In 1917, the demise of Imperial Russia dovetailed with the rise of the Bolsheviks and provided the first grand stage of social experimentation with regards to Marxism as a viable socio-economic basis for governance of one of the world's largest countries. Now Russia may once again prove to be the experimental canvas for social media to work as a vehicle for change, and the first tangible evidence on the world stage that social media can act not only as a supplement to traditional media outlets, but as an entirely independent and unfettered replacement to said media.

The 2011 Duma elections were a farcical and largely insignificant preliminary bout to the real main event, the 2012 Presidential elections.  In fact, the only real significance to the Duma elections is that they may have lit the fuse of popular sentiment, fueled by social media. In the early days of the 20th century, the Russian emigre publication "Iskra" (meaning, "The Spark" in Russian) proved to be an important impetus leading to the mass protests of 1905 and, later, in 1917. Social media in Russia has a legitimate chance to be the 21st century "spark" and a legitimate driver of change within the country.

"Из искры возгорится пламя" ("From a spark a fire will flare up") - Russian poet Aleksandr Odoevsky (1802-1839)

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