12/12/2011 03:35 PM

The Web vs. Putin

Taking on Russia's Old Guard with New Technology

By , and

The disputed elections in Russia have unleashed a wave of rage and sparked the largest anti-government protests since the end of the Soviet Union, organized via the Internet. The Kremlin seems powerless to stop the online activists as Russians lose their fear. For the first time, Vladimir Putin seems vulnerable.

Ilya Varlamov was in his early 20s when he landed his first $3 million contract. Today, the 27-year-old is head of an information technology company in Moscow that creates intricate three-dimensional architectural models for its clients. His office has all the trappings of success: an Apple computer flanked by an iPhone and modern Russian art hanging on white walls.

It was Varlamov who gave shape to the future Olympic stadium in the city of Sochi where Russia will host the 2014 Winter Games. That was a government contract -- one of many that have made him a wealthy man. Varlamov is one of the winners under Vladmir Putin's ongoing 11-year reign. He likes to travel to the West when he goes on vacation. In interviews, he carefully avoids saying anything negative about Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or President Dmitry Medvedev.

It was the same story when Medvedev, who loves to pose with his iPad for photographs, broke his promise that there would be "no censorship on the Internet as long as I am in the Kremlin." Varlamov held his tongue for a long time, but now that's over.

Russia Wakes Up

The fraudulent election on Dec. 4 seems to have jolted the country out of its slumber, and the Russian people appear to be overcoming their fear of the regime and of control and repression. Now, the new Russia is combating the old one: Blogs and other online campaigns are exposing the lies propagated on TV and the oppression inflicted by the police and intelligence agencies, while Twitter users are protesting against the hackers that the Kremlin allegedly hired to silence reports of electoral fraud.

Varlamov, who gives his staff instructions via smart phones and computers, recently hired 20 journalists to run the Ridus news website, which is critical of the regime. The reporters and editors sit in an open-plan office where numerous laptops sit on natural wood tables. Scribbled notes and drawings cover the walls.

One of these depicts the logo of the government-controlled television station NTV under a pile of excrement. Eleven years ago, Putin had natural gas giant Gazprom take over the network, which was critical of the government at the time. Ever since then, NTV has been broadcasting propaganda on the Kremlin's orders. Varlamov's staff provide an alternative to the official line. On the Ridus portal, anyone can publish news, opinions and photos.

"I now only believe what I can see with my own eyes," says Varlamov, adding that this motivated him to spread the news about the uproar against the Kremlin and mingle with the Muscovites protesting against Putin.

A One-Man News Agency

Over 57,000 people subscribe to his Twitter feed. During the protests, Varlamov became a kind of one-man news agency. "Clashes and brawls. Gas sprayed," he tweeted from central Moscow. When thousands of demonstrators gathered there, he broadcast the protest live on one of his websites. Half a million viewers were watching.

"I show people what the TV networks refuse to," he says. With his words, he touches on the very core of the worst legitimation crisis in the otherwise smooth political career of former KGB officer Putin. How much of what the prime minister says do people still believe? Even more important: What don't they believe anymore?

Times have changed. The idealized world of inexpensive public housing and successful anti-corruption initiatives depicted on TV now clashes with a counter-version presented by bloggers. Today, an increasing number of new websites reveal to Russia's 60 million Internet users how the parliamentary election was rigged in favor of Putin's United Russia party. These days it should be clear to everyone that the election does not reflect the current mood in the country. According to official results, United Russia received nearly 50 percent of the votes, the Communists garnered 19 percent, and two puppet parties came in with 13 and 12 percent, respectively.

Other political factions are not represented at all: the nationalists, whose "Russia for Russians" slogan enjoys broad support -- and the narrow segment of the population consisting of pro-Western democrats, who are well-educated and thus essential to the modernization of this giant country. Only just a few months ago, Putin achieved popularity ratings that were twice as high as those enjoyed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Putin seemed unassailable -- but that has changed.

His party lost 15 percent, over 12 million votes, compared to the last parliamentary election in 2007. Independent election observers believe that, at least in larger cities, a correct count would have given United Russia 10 to 15 percent fewer votes than the already disappointing result.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of people protested against the alleged electoral fraud across Russia in the biggest anti-government rallies since the end of the Soviet Union. The biggest protests were in central Moscow. Police estimated the size of the crowd at 30,000 people, but organizers claimed that as many as 100,000 people took part. In St. Petersburg, around 7,000 people took to the streets, and demonstrations took place in over 60 other cities. Police showed unusual restraint, with only about 100 arrests across the country, a low figure by Russian standards. On Sunday, President Medvedev appeared to respond to Saturday's demonstrations by announcing on his Facebook page that he had ordered a probe into the electoral fraud allegations.

Feeling Betrayed

The macho politician Putin is starting to falter: Could it be that this man, who controls vast quantities of natural resources and currency reserves, is facing something far worse than a difficult campaign for the presidential election in three months? Could he be chased from power like an Arab autocrat?

"The czar is suddenly wearing no clothes," notes Victor Erofeyev, who is probably Russia's best-known living author. The revolutionary year 2011 with its protests has now also arrived in calm Russia, he says. And fellow Russian author Eduard Uspensky remarked that, although it was impossible to combat the scrupulousness and insolence of Putin's party, "we can show these people that no one needs them anymore." The Russians have apparently followed this advice.

This time around, many are upset about things that they used to accept with a shrug of the shoulders. Putin has become a kind of eternal Brezhnev for many of them -- a symbol of the stagnation that plagues the country. President Medvedev, who, at least for a while, embodied the hopes of the liberal intelligentsia, has been reduced to a puppet figure, docilely allowing himself to be shoved aside, making way for Putin to resume the presidency. The tactical maneuver of a tandem leadership for the purpose of maintaining power didn't work. In fact, it has played into the hands of opposing forces and fueled the resistance of the disenchanted who now feel betrayed by Medvedev.

Now, for the first time since General Alexander Lebed challenged President Boris Yeltsin in the 1996 election, a possible rival has entered the political stage, someone who is capable of rousing the enthusiasm of many Russians -- the 35-year-old corporate lawyer and blogger Alexey Navalny.

'I Hate Putin for Looting the Country'

The Kremlin has been afraid of him ever since Navalny exposed shady deals worth billions in a state-owned corporation. The regime repeatedly tried to discredit the activist, who briefly studied in the US, as a lackey of the West.

On the day of the parliamentary election, Navalny tweeted virtually by the minute to report on electoral fraud, and the following evening he gave a speech in which he spoke of the "crooks and thieves" in the government. Shortly thereafter he was arrested -- an event that can also be seen on YouTube. Even while he was on his way to the court, which would later sentence him to 15 days in jail, he sent greetings to his supporters via Twitter.

Navalny is the exact opposite of the technocrats that Putin has surrounded himself with. He is an online politician and, on top of that, a real man -- what the Russians call a muzhik. He doesn't belong to the liberals who are seen as weaklings in Russia; he is a nationalist who doesn't even have qualms about marching through the streets of Moscow with fascists. Navalny's rhetoric is belligerent. "I hate Putin and his close advisers for looting the country. Sooner or later we will punish them," he told SPIEGEL, speaking in his spartanly furnished office before he was arrested.

Over the past few years, Russia's leadership has grown used to the idea of being able to control and manipulate the public. Putin's "political technologists" launched smear campaigns whenever it served their purposes; they created political parties only to allow them to die again soon thereafter. Disgusted or merely bored with the endless re-runs of the same old political show, an increasing number of Russians see Navalny as the face that they have been yearning for. The Russian edition of Esquire magazine even put a photo of the hero on its glossy cover.

However much Russia has changed over the past two decades, its politicians remain largely the same -- geriatric and gray oppositional figures from yesteryear. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, now 67, has already lost three presidential elections. Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia now serves as nothing more than a stage for the one-man show of its once feared leader. And in the office of the democratic Yabloko party, which failed to clear the 7 percent hurdle to secure seats in the State Duma, a poster from 1996 is still hanging on the wall.

Online Struggle

A man like Navalny would be a hopelessly marginalized figure, if not for a decisive change that has taken place since the 2007 election: The battle for public opinion is now being fought where the Kremlin can't dictate the rules: online. One of the world's largest machines of repression is largely powerless against the new digital world.

Russia's domestic intelligence agency, the FSB, has over 350,000 staff members, while the Interior Ministry has 200,000 troops at its disposal. Equipped with armored cars and helicopter gunships, they have been trained to crush demonstrations -- but they cannot prevent Web-based reports of ballot box stuffing. Over 1.9 million YouTube viewers watched a representative of electoral commission Number 2501 as he made row after row of check marks, presumably for United Russia. It doesn't make matters any better when Putin's press spokesman announces a fresh start and speaks of "Putin 2.0," as if the prime minister just needed an update. "The new Putin software isn't compatible with the old processor," says blogger and radio commentator Matvei Ganapolsky. "We have to replace the entire computer."

In view of his dwindling popularity, Putin is breathing life into old stereotypes of Russia's enemies to draw attention away from his own failures. This can be best observed in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which is surrounded by EU member states. Kaliningrad is one of three large cities in which the governing party has been voted out of office and beaten at the polls by the Communists. They won here with 30 percent of the vote, while Putin's United Russia party only received 25 percent. After the election defeat, the governor of the region was summoned to deliver a report to the Kremlin, as if the government in Moscow were not responsible for the mood in the country.

On Wednesday evening, outraged young people chanted in the center of old Kaliningrad: "Putin is a thief!" and "Our patience is over!" On the town square, the news quickly spread that the Russian general staff had just stationed S-400 anti-aircraft missiles in the region of Kaliningrad. These weapons are capable of shooting down NATO aircraft and missiles. President Medvedev also threatened to have additional attack missiles deployed in reaction to the failed negotiations with the Americans on a joint European missile defense system. It was certainly no coincidence that Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov presented the S-400 only three days after the election. Indeed, it was a symbolic act.

'We're Still Standing'

Some 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Kaliningrad, Putin's rhetoric doesn't even seem to work anymore with World War II veterans. When a number of them met last week in Sovetsk, a town on the eastern border of the exclave, a new distance to the regime could also be observed among the old-timers. "We've lived here on the border in fear all our lives," said 80-year-old Zinaida Rutman. "This fear was often artificially stirred up by our own leaders -- always when they wanted to regain the loyalty of the people."

Meanwhile, pro-Kremlin activists have launched a wave of bot attacks to drown out the opposition's tweets. By last Friday evening 50,000 people had signed up for a demonstration on Saturday via the social networks VKontakte and Facebook. The FSB called on VKontakte operators to shut down forums used by the opposition.

"Out of principle, we don't do something like that," tweeted Pavel Durov, the head of VKontakte, a short time later. "I don't know how this will end for us, but we're still standing."

The Russians are in the process of losing their fear.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen


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