Are the New Media in Russia the catalyst for political change? Or just a safety-valve for ineffectual reformers to let off steam?
There is no doubt that Russians have taken to Facebook, Twitter and their Russian equivalents with unparalleled gusto. “I just don’t know when they find the time to actually get any work done,” one journalist marvelled.
But until last December, this frenetic activity was largely a social phenomenon. Russian net-heads became world leaders at file-
sharing, hacking into other people’s computer networks, online pornography and other shady activities. But apart from embarrassing President Dmitry Medvedev by Tweeting an obscenity under his name, social media practitioners had no significant impact on public politics.
All that changed with December’s parliamentary elections, when widespread fraud in favour of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party caused outrage. While the state-controlled tv networks ignored the vote-rigging and the protests from monitors, NGOs, opposition politicians and ordinary voters, the new networks were buzzing.
The result was the biggest demonstrations in Russia for years as tens of thousands took to the streets of Moscow and other cities. The Kremlin was undoubtedly shaken. Eventually even national television decided to cover the protests.
For the first time discontented Russians had a forum, bypassing official media channels, where they could coalesce around a single theme and organise a mass protest movement free from state interference.
But the presidential election on March 4 will still end with a convincing victory for Vladimir Putin. Russia is not North Africa and whether the New Media will really make any difference in the medium and long term remains an open question.
According to a survey by comScore, Russian users of social media spend more than twice the world average of time online. They show dazzling skill and wit in creating jingles, cartoons, film clips and so on. They may not have invented too much in the virtual world, but Russian geeks follow developments in the outside world closely and are brilliant at adapting them.
In some ways, New Media could have been designed for Russia – a country with vast distances between cities, a highly literate population, appalling weather which makes straying outside an unattractive prospect for half the year and, above all, intrusive authorities.
The freedom and open access of user-generated content have given millions of Russians access to a new way of communicating about what happens inside and outside their country, shattering the monopoly of “the official version”.
It would be nice to think that this technological revolution would lead to a lasting political openness, a more multi-faceted and democratic universe. And there is no doubt that the recent protests have served a purpose; Vladimir Putin is having to fight a genuine election campaign, popular discontent is being aired.
But history cautions against too much optimism. Over the centuries Russia has zigzagged between liberal and authoritarian autocracies, opening and closing the spigot of democracy every generation or so. But there has always been a huge difference between what goes on in Moscow/St Petersburg, and what is permitted in the provinces.
The modern-day equivalent of this geographical control is national television. It was the first thing to be brought under the Kremlin thumb when the liberal period of Boris Yeltsin gave way to the more authoritarian atmosphere of the Putin era.
Central television news and current affairs coverage is technologically smart, entertaining and far from pure propaganda. But no serious challenge to the Kremlin’s world view is allowed, no criticism too effective, no political rival too convincing. So long as the scattered masses get their news from central tv, they will still vote for Putin and United Russia, let the Moscow elites huff and puff as they will.