The old saying is that Russia never changes through elections but only through revolutions. It is tempting to see the recent protests on Moscow’s streets as the embryonic stages of the next upheaval. But behind them, there is a different kind of revolution in the making, which the Kremlin is having a difficult time addressing.
Russia now has over 50m internet users and a lively online community. Alexei Navalny, a prominent figure in the protest movement, who was arrested on a demonstration last Monday, made his name as an anti-corruption blogger and the protests themselves have been coordinated through social media.
Yet while the Kremlin keeps strict control over traditional media (especially television), its attempts to make inroads into online media have proven underwhelming.
Sunday’s election drew the now familiar denial-of-service attacks on the websites of blog sites, media outlets and election observers. But with Twitter, Facebook and mobile phone networks still functioning, the attacks did little to derail the coverage.
So the question remains, is it possible to tame the web? On taking office, President Dmitry Medvedev opted for a more engaged approach and his Twitter account has an impressive following of 740,000 people. Last week his account briefly flashed up an abusive message from a fellow Russian politician (since removed) suggesting the protesters were sheep who required forced oral sex.
This was followed by a Facebook message calling for a review of the results from the 4th December Duma elections. At one point it had received over 12,000 comments, few of which could be described as complimentary.
It must also be acknowledged that Russian hackers and spammers have equally played their part over recent days. Protest hashtags on Twitter were quickly swamped by spam messages with messages proclaiming “Putin is great” and “Russia needs Putin.”
More sinisterly the liberal opposition party Yabloko and the newspaper Novaya Gazeta have received a slew of automated calls with a female voice declaring “Putin makes your life happy. Love Putin and your life will fill with meaning. Putin does everything for you.”
Their efforts, however, have so far failed to disrupt the momentum of the protest movement. Over 21,000 people have signed up attend the next meeting, planned for December 24th. This looks to be one contest the Kremlin…