Thursday, April 16, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Will the Internet Integrate the Russian Federation -- or Tear It Apart?

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 16 – A Duma deputy from Nizhny Novgorod suggests that the Internet can link the various parts of the Russian Federation in “much the same way that earlier great empires were linked together by roads,” but other commentators have suggested that the Internet in its various forms in fact represents a threat to that country’s integrity and political system.
Speaking to an information technology forum in Nizhny Novgorod a few days ago, Konstantin Rykov argued that only thanks to the Internet can Russia “tie together the space in the enormous land of Russia,” with its “thousands of kilometers between major cities” and address common problems like the economic crisis (
Because Russia now has 50 million Internet users, he said, the country need “not lose its faith” that the government’s programs for 2020 will be realized, especially since, in his view, “the Russian sphere of information technology has not suffered as much as this sector has in other countries.”
There is no doubt that the Internet can and is playing a key role in linking people together across the Russian Federation and between them and the rest of the world. Indeed, Rykov’s words are particularly important as a reminder that in many ways Russian communications has jumped from a very primitive level in Soviet times to cutting edge now.
But if that is not a matter of dispute, the impact of the Internet and its various permutations, such as Facebook and Twitter, on the country is very much a matter of dispute. Russian officials are increasingly concerned about the use of the Internet by extremists and about the threat of cyber-attacks against particular sites (
Indeed, Moscow’s proposals to declare the Internet a form of the media subject to laws governing other media are the latest stage in the struggle between offense and defense in this area, with advocates saying they have no choice and opponents noting how site operators can end run such efforts at regulation (
But there is another and perhaps greater danger here: the Internet tends to fragment populations by allowing individuals to get only information that reinforces their own ideas – one Russian side even features the rubric, “everyone wants to be informed honestly, dispassionately, and truthfully – in complete conformity with his own point of view” (
Were these people getting their news and ideas from more general sources, their opinions might be changed or at least moderated, but because they get it from sources they have chosen because they agree with them, their opinions tend to become more rigid, and their sense of rectitude correspondingly greater.
That is a danger of that development everywhere, but in the Russian case it is compounded not only by the decline in the number of people read newspapers and by growing distrust of officially controlled electronic media but also by the growing importance of linguistic and regional affinities in defining the audiences of various sites.
In Soviet times, large shares of almost all non-Russian nations within the USSR turned to Russian-language media which promoted sometimes successfully and sometimes not a more common perspective, but now, ever more people in the non-Russian nations within the Russian Federation are turning to Internet sites devoted to their communities and in their own languages.
That can only be welcomed as a contribution to the free flow of information and the growth of national self-consciousness at a time when these things are under attack from Moscow and the broader culture, but they do promote a kind of separateness – and that separateness may ultimately have greater political consequences than any specific message on any one site.
Moreover, such promotion of separateness and apartness that the Internet has always and everywhere contributed to may also be exacerbated in Russia and some of the other post-Soviet states by new Internet forms. Some analysts, for example, have called the recent Moldovan events the first “Twitter” revolution” (
But because of this back and forth, it is certainly too soon to declare with any certainty that the Internet will “save” the Russian Federation as good roads helped earlier empires to survive as long as they did or that it will destroy that country and lead to its splitting apart along linguistic, cultural, or religious lines.

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