Friday, December 5, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Some in Putin’s Party Want to Erect a Chinese Wall Around the Russian Internet

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 5 – In the name of fighting extremism, a group of United Russia Duma deputies has proposed new legislation that would allow the government to impose sanctions on those who distribute what Moscow believes are “extremist” materials via the Internet and to close down the sites they post them on.
But just how expansive their understanding of “extremism” may be and how much of a threat what they are proposing to do poses to the free flow of information is suggested in an article posted on one Moscow analytic site day which defines as “extremist” many things that most people would consider simply to be news and information.
And even though the nature of the world wide web is such that Russian government efforts in this area are unlikely to be fully effective, such moves against what many consider to be the last free media space in Russia represent a further act of intimidation by Vladimir Putin and his associates against the embattled members of civil society in that country.
Five United Russian deputies from the Duma committees on information policy, security and nationality affairs on Wednesday introduced legislation that would among other things define websites as media outlets and subject them to the same regulations that the print media now experience (
Their effort was approved the day before by the expert council of the Duma headed by Vladimir Pekhtin, the first deputy chairman of the United Russia Party in the parliament, but officials say that the new measure may not in fact pass because it contradicts President Dmitry Medvedev’s calls for “greater information openness” and the development of the Internet.
And even if it does, Igor Ashmanov, whose company, Ashmanov and Partners, develops search engines, told “Vedomosti,” it will do little beside regularize existing practice by Russian officials and lead more sites to seek hosting abroad, where Russian legislation does not now reach, unless Russia were willing to adopt the Chinese model and suffer the isolation that causes.
But in certain respects, those observations while quite true miss the point. Proposing such legislation, even if it does not in fact pass, represents an effort to intimidate those who use the Internet to discuss any number of issues. And just how broadly some in Moscow might interpret this legislation is highlighted in an article posted online today.
In an essay entitled “Internet-Separatism, or In the Struggle with Russia, All Means are Good,” Moscow journalist Yana Amelina argues that activists in Georgia, Ukraine and Russia itself have stepped up their efforts to promote separatism since Moscow recognized the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (
She surveys Georgian, Ukrainian and Russian websites over the last three months that have suggested that ethnic minorities and regional groups of Russians should pursue independence from Moscow on the basis of the notion that the Russian Federation remains an imperial state and “sooner or later” all empires die.
Among the places that Georgian and Ukrainian sites say are candidates for independence are Tuva, the Altai, Buryatia, Yakutia, Komi, Karelia, Tatarstan, Irkutsk, Kaliningrad, Krasnoyarsk and of course the republics of the North Caucasus like Chechnya, Ingushetia, the various Circassian republics and Daghestan.
But Amelina focuses her obvious anger against those who talk about political projects like the Far Eastern Republic of the 1920s, Siberia, Northern Ingria (the area around St. Petersburg), Idel-Ural (which includes the six major peoples of the Middle Volga), Cossack groups, and even something called “Moscow Autonomy.”
And she lashes out at efforts within Russia as well to unite these various groups against the central Russian government by Internet activists like Regions of Russia site founder Dmitry Verkhoturov, who has managed to attract some 17 non-Russian and Russian communities to his banner of a common struggle against Moscow.
Amelina suggests that the Russian authorities should counter these groups by exposing their goals, an idea that would feed into the idea that their access to the RUnet should be monitored and controlled. But even as she does so, she weakens her case by pointing out how relatively few people actually go to these sites and how little influence they appear to have.
Indeed, her article probably will be read by far more people than any of the sites she attacks has so far, possibly leading some of her readers to explore what these sites have to offer and thus undercutting her very obvious purpose of seeking to intimidate the limited number of people who are now talking about these issues online.
“The reason the Georgian and Ukrainian media are devoting such attention to the internet regionalists and separatists is obvious,” she says. “In the struggle with Russia, all means are good. At the same time, however, this is a way of responding to the work of Russian experts who predict the collapse of article state formations bearing the name ‘Georgia’ and ‘Ukraine.’”

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