Putin's Critics: A Web Strategy
By Garry Kasparov
During my years as a hero of the chess-crazed Soviet Union, I appeared regularly on state-controlled television and in newspapers. What I would give for such access today! Since I retired from chess two years ago to enter a new fray, the fight for democracy in Russia against the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Vladimir Putin, traditional media have been closed to me. Instead, I've gained an appreciation for a less-traditional means of communication: the Internet.
Indeed, the Web is quickly becoming the last refuge of dissent in my country. With print, television, and radio almost entirely under state control, directly or indirectly, the Internet is a vital resource for communication and organization. But low Internet penetration means that many ordinary Russians cannot yet hear our pro-democracy message. And lately even the Web has become a target of the Kremlin, with its desire to control and monitor our every thought and deed.
Every politician knows that no matter how valuable your message, you can't succeed if you can't get that message out. In a free-market society with an independent media, that access depends on the quality of your message, the amount of money you have, and your public relations skills. In a totalitarian society, every message is directly shaped or thoroughly checked by the regime.
The current state of Russian media perfectly illustrates the famous A.J. Liebling quote: "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." Every significant media outlet is controlled by Putin's loyal band of oligarchs. Topics, people, even specific words, are banned from the airwaves.
Indeed, one of the first things Putin did after taking office in 2000 was to enact a law granting the government and the security forces broad powers of surveillance and, potentially, control over Internet traffic. Since then there have been occasions when negative news items have quickly disappeared from Russian news sites and access to opposition sites has been blocked, either by hackers or by Internet service providers. Still, Russia's 28 million Internet users enjoy relative freedom—at least for now.
Web penetration in Russia is under 20%, and a majority of those users live in the affluent Moscow and St. Petersburg areas, where many people are enjoying the luxuries accompanying the energy boom and have little interest in politics as long as the oil—and the cash—keep flowing. Relatively few surfers use the Internet to access political news. In fact, much of the Russian-language Internet, especially political content, is viewed outside the borders of Russia and the former Soviet republics. Of the 2.2 million weekly readers of the popular Russian LiveJournal blogs, only 1.2 million reside in Russia. Still, these pages have become such a force that topics such as the 2004 murder of journalist German Galdetsky forced their way into the mainstream news because they reached a critical mass on LiveJournal.
The Other Russia opposition coalition, which I co-founded in 2006, uses the Web to inform and organize. The Kremlin often targets local printers and harasses our activists when they attempt to distribute our newspapers and flyers. But if people know where to look, they can find out about our events online. We also publish coverage of our "Marches of Dissent," including videos of state security forces attacking our rallies. Since we are banned from TV, YouTube (GOOG ) provides improvised video coverage thanks to dozens of activists. What these citizen reports lack in production values, they more than make up for in honesty and immediacy. And our English-language Web site keeps pressure on Putin by educating the West, whose financial complicity is needed by his government.
Nonetheless, there remains the constant threat of being jailed for "extremist speech," the Kremlin's Orwellian justification for suppressing criticism. Individuals have been criminally charged for Internet posts. The security forces and their allies engage in online harassment as well. Our Web sites are under constant threat of coordinated hacker attacks, forcing us to look outside Russia's borders to establish a network that cannot be shut down by the government.
Even if we get our message out, we cannot make people read it, or care, or act. Our mission, then, is to present a message so powerful that it cannot be ignored. In this fight, the Internet is our best weapon to let the world know what's really going on behind Putin's 21st century Iron Curtain.
Views expressed in Outside Shot are solely those of contributors.
Garry Kasparov, former world chess champion, is co-founder of The Other Russia opposition coalition (theotherrussia.org).