Thursday, January 21, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Will Kremlin’s Push for Officials to Blog Change Russian Politics?

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 21 – Concerned about declining public trust in regional media, the Kremlin is pushing governors to launch their own blogs and take part in online discussions, a step that could change Russian politics as well as reporting about it or one that could fizzle if the governors fail to maintain their blogs or if Moscow decides such outlets are a threat to its control.
In today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” Elina Bilevskaya reports that President Dmitry Medvedev and his staff have decided that “one of the criteria” they will use for measuring “the effectiveness of the heads of region will be their activity on the Internet.” Those who aren’t active will be weeded out (
The Kremlin appears to have three reasons for pushing this step, the “Nezavisimaya” journalist says. First, the Presidential Administration is “concerned by the decline of trust in the official media in the regions,” something it hopes to remedy by having the governors start blogs and conduct online discussions.
Second, Moscow wants to promote the expansion of high-speed broadband access to the Internet outside of Moscow. If regional leaders go online, others will follow, and private Internet providers will move in to profit from expanded popular interest in and official exploitation of this new technology.
And third, as Medvedev suggested at the December 2009 State Council meeting, promoting the use of the Internet is “one of the aspects of the modernization of the political system” because it will not only force leaders to present their views in a more timely fashion but also create a feedback loop to allow them to be better managers.
Officials around Medvedev are worried, Bilevskaya says, that “in the not distant future, the use of virtual technologies and also blogs and social networks will be able not only to form relations to the representatives of the ruling class but also exert real influence on the outcome of voting in the elections.”
Until recently, the “Nezavisimaya” gazeta journalist points out, “governors have not shown great interest in the Internet.” Only a few, including Oleg Chirkunov of Perm, Nikita Belykh of Kirov and Dmitry Zelenin of Tver, have maintained active blogs of the kind the Kremlin seems to want.
But this latest Kremlin drive may soon run up against two serious obstacles. On the one hand, at least so far, “residents of the regions most often use the Internet to search for information about the private lives of politicians,” something that hardly makes a higher Internet profile attractive to the governors.
And on the other, maintaining an active blog, especially one that is intended to promote interaction between its author and its visitors, is enormously time consuming. Governors who try to maintain a blog are likely to find it will eat into their work schedule, and those who hand off the tasks to aides may find that any visitors will be cynical about the entire process.
At the same time, however, this latest Kremlin drive may have some interesting consequences both for Russia and for those who study that country. For Russia, such an increase in largely uncontrolled media outlets almost certainly will lead to the expression of a greater range of opinions, even if those maintaining these blogs do not intend that.
And for those who study Russia, the rise of such blogs will require a new research approach, one that will increasingly have to track not just what is in the official or semi-official print and electronic media but also what senior officials and politicians are saying in this most febrile of media.
To the extent that indeed happens, it will represent a change in Russian politics, albeit it may lead to changes that those pushing governors to go online neither anticipate or in fact want, building new legitimacy for some leaders and undermining that of others and making influence from below once again a serious matter even for those who do not have to face the voters.

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