Friday, February 20, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Growing ‘Virtual’ Civil Society under Regime-Sponsored Attack

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 20 – Civil society in Russia, to the extent it exists at all, resides almost exclusively on the Internet, a kind of “utopia” or “place that does not exist,” Moscow media report. And they add that this fragile set of institutions continues to grow despite attacks by hackers, threats from the government, and the burdens imposed by rising prices.
In one article in “New Times,” Tatyana Shcherbina writes that the Internet has created a new model for society, one that can be described as a utopia in which “the city states” that have emerged are the blogs on “the Living Journal” or “ZhZh,” its Russian acronym, to organize themselves as a community (
This unique “world” has its own citizens, its own leaders, its own policemen, and its own criminal class, she continues, and thus it is creating a situation in which “life is becoming ever more virtual,” at least for those going online, a source of news, encouragement, and even empowerment.
And consequently, Shcherbina says, it is possible to argue that “a civil society has emergence on the Living Journal, even though it has not taken shape” in non-virtual Russia. But despite that and other limitations, it is still incredibly important. More than two million people turn to it every day directly, and many more are affected.
The most popular Living Journal sites attract enormous audiences, twenty or even fifty times the 30,000 that the most popular site on ZhZh now lists as subscribers. And as a result, she says, this “utopia or place that does not exist” is providing the foundation for people to act as a community in the way that civil society requires, organizing, protesting, and so on.
Unfortunately, this “virtual” civil society suffers from severe limitations and may now be under particular threat. First, it is not highly developed outside of Moscow. According to the latest statistics, from December of last year, 50.8 percent of the addresses on ZhZh are in Moscow, even though that city forms only eight percent of the country’s population.
But in fact that statistic is encouraging because it means that almost half of the addresses are outside of the capital, a far larger figure than in the past and one that suggests the rest of the country is increasingly participating in the “virtual” civil society, albeit with a significant lag time (
That center-periphery disjunction may be the least of the problems of this form of “civil society.” First, the Russian Orthodox Church has launched an attack on the internet, arguing that any use of the Internet will destroy the ability of surfers to think independently, the opposite of what is in fact the case (
Second, prices are rising, often by 30 percent or more, a powerful disincentive to go online especially in today’s tough economic times (, although so far, statistics suggest, the number of people choosing to go online continues to rise, a testimonial to the importance of this forum (
But third, the most serious threat to this form of civil society comes from the government both very publically through its efforts to declare many websites a form of media and thus subject to Russian laws about the media and more covertly and insidiously through the use of hackers to attack Russian sites and especially blogs the regime does not like.
The current issue of “New Times” carries an article on Russian hackers, their activities and their links to the government (, an investigative piece that has been expanded by the editors of Russia’s website (
That article, by Vladimir Pribylovsky and entitled “HELL with You,” describes the various ways in which hackers do their work and the way in which they are both linked to the Russian government and organized in ways that allow that government plausibly to deny that there is any connection.
Having examined a number cases in which the author tracks the income of the attackers, he concludes that “the simplest answer” to the question of why do they do this ids that it allows them to “earn money,” money that the government is quite prepared to spend out of a fear that unless it does, an “orange” revolution in Russia could occur.
“It is evident,” Pribylovsky writes, “that all the projects which those political technologists who are close to the Kremlin, including specialists on the Internet, are being created primarily with the goal of participating in drawing money from the budget” rather than from some broader ideological goal.
That absence explanation, of course, highlights a very real risk the Russian government faces in its use of hackers: If others are able or willing to spend more money than it is on these people, they could easily change sides; and even if that seems unlikely now, should Moscow run out of funds, it could be a real and for the Russian regime serious threat to its existence.

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