Vienna, March 23 – President Vladimir Putin’s stepped up effort to control electronic media in the Russian Federation has had three consequences the Kremlin almost certainly did not intend and that appear likely to create new problems for Moscow in the coming months.
First, Putin’s moves against the Internet have prompted those who control many nationalist and extremist sites to become far more agile in response. Many of them have already set up work-around sites domestically and in some cases they have transferred the hosting of their sites to foreign countries.
Second, the Russian president’s efforts is prompting some editors of these sites --and presumably those who visit them as well -- to shift the focus of their anger away from Western institutions like NATO, the United States and the Roman Catholic Church to the Kremlin itself.
And third, Putin’s moves have had the effect of ceding control over portions of the radio waves to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, some of whose hierarchs seek to close the radio stations carrying different religious messages and even to introduce censorship over the electronic media more generally.
Each of these developments was in principle predictable, but together they constitute not only a threat to media freedom in the Russian Federation but also to the Kremlin as well, underscoring its own limits in this area and costing it some of the controls by intimidation that Putin had introduced earlier.
The Internet is extremely difficult to control, as the Putin regime is now learning. Not only can those who produce sites a government hopes to close down create alternative sites almost at will, but they can shift the base of their operations to ISPs abroad.
Three nationalist sites that the Kremlin has targeted have made use of these devices. The Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) whose xenophobic messages have given it notoriety has created a series of alternative sites in order to keep one step ahead of the authorities.
The National Bolshevik Party (NBP) and other radical sites have done the same thing. And the Agency of Russian Information (ARI) has taken the additional step of shifting its ISP out of the Russian Federation to one in an unspecified country in Western Europe.
And these actions have undercut the Kremlin’s expensive efforts – estimated at as much as $70,000 a day – to force Russian ISPs to drop the sites Putin does not approve of and to deny access to these sites through a variety of other means including massive bot attacks (http://www.nr2.ru/moskow/109617.html),
At the same time, the latest Putin attacks on these sites may make them even more radical by not only reduced the self-censorship that many of their editors had exercised in the past but led them to change their attitudes toward at least some Western institutions and virtually all structures of the Russian government.
The editor of the nationalist site ARI, which is now based abroad under the alternative designation ARIRI.INFO posted a message saying that Putin’s latest moves demonstrated that “freedom-loving people in Russia can be protected only in the West .. not in China, Iran or Palestine or among other ‘friends.’
And that in turn means, ARI’s Aleksandr Belov continued, for Russian nationalists the “main enemies of Russians and even the second and third level enemies are all inside Russia” rather than abroad – a reality that he suggested was forcing him and his associates to change their views (http://www.ari.ru/doc/print/?id=2844).
What must be especially disturbing to the Kremlin about all this is that nationalist sites have been losing influence in recent months, according to some analysts, and that “the ethnonationalist scenarios” they call for are now “not only the least desirable” but also “the least possible” in Russia (http://www.narodru.ru/article/7722.html).
However that may be, the impact of Putin’s intensified drive against the electronic media in another area is not only clear but perhaps even more disturbing. A series of Orthodox Christian radio stations have been closed in recent weeks, nominally because they have violated their charters.
But the real reason appears to lie elsewhere and is thus more frightening: A spokesman for the Eparchate of the Russian Orthodox Church in St. Petersburg said on Wednesday that these stations “had long ago ceased to be genuinely Orthodox” and therefore deserved to be closed (http://www.fontanka.ru/2007/032/21/082/).
This declaration is only one of a large number that a series of church hierarchs have made in recent days calling for the imposition of direct or indirect censorship not only of radio but also and even more of television programming (http://www.portal-credo.ru/site/print.php?act=comment&id=1180).
In the face of this, several supporters of Orthodox broadcasting at odds with the church’s hierarchy plan to convene a meeting in St. Petersburg tomorrow “not only to demonstrate but also to pray.” It is unlikely that meeting will attract much attention, but their concerns deserve to be carefully examined by all who care freedom in Russia.