After the protest, Irina, age 21, Google-chatted me at 1 am from her apartment: “For the first time in my life I felt like I have many pals in this city.” She had just joined the largest demonstration seen in Moscow in years — 6,000 Muscovites charging that blatant and massive electoral fraud took place in their city.
On Sunday night, election night, a Kremlin-funded exit polling company said 27 percent of voters voted for the ruling United Russia party. The next morning, the Kremlin-controlled election authorities reported that 46.5 percent of the city’s votes went for United Russia.
In almost identical bedroom communities, divided only by an avenue, people on one side of the street voted 25 percent for the government. On the other side of the street, 60 percent of people voted for the government.
So how had Irina magically discovered so many like-minded, outraged people, all gathering at 7 pm around Chistii Prudi metro station, only two blocks from the looming headquarters of successor agency to the KGB?
“For the last two days, my Facebook page has exploded with everyone talking about the election,” she told me. Dozhd TV, a privately-owned internet channel, now calls it “The Facebook Revolution.”
On Monday night, state-run TV did not air images of 300 people arrested at the downtown Moscow protest. Instead they trained their cameras two blocks away — on a state-sponsored “Clean Elections” rally that had the look of a high school pep rally. The political conflict shaping up in Russia today is between the Television Generation and the Internet Generation.
On Sunday, the TV Generation won Round One. Officially, 49.64 percent of Russians voted for the ruling party. Opposition leaders like Vladimir Ryzhkov estimate that only one third of voters cast ballots for United Russia, and fraud took care of the rest. There were some interesting results.
Dagestan, an impoverished southern region, is in such a state of violent rebellion that a BBC report two weeks ago called it: “The Most Dangerous Place in Europe.” Yet on Sunday, 92 percent of Dagestanis who voted cast their ballots for the Kremlin’s United Russia party. Neighboring Chechens outdid them, with 99.5 percent voting for the official party. (This is a touching change of heart as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin led the second war against Chechen separatists in the fall of 1999. This year-long conflict resulted in about 65,000 dead on both sides.) These impoverished areas on Russia’s southern edge have some of the nation’s lowest Internet connectivity rates.
But in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the 10 ‘millioniki’ – provincial capitals with 1 million people – Internet connectivity rates are fast approaching levels of Western Europe. By some estimates, 90 percent of Moscow households are now online. And Moscow now concentrates almost 10 percent of the nation’s total population.
So who was the Kremlin’s number one target in days prior to the election?
Golos, or Voice, is a small non-governmental office, with about eight fulltime employees. It’s located on a back street in Moscow, up two flights of stairs from a book review magazine. One week before the election, Prime Minister Putin fired the starting gun for the attack. In nationally televised remarks, he made a veiled attack on the largely foreign-funded group, comparing it to Judas, the Biblical traitor of Jesus. Almost immediately, prosecutors raided Golos. A judge fined it $1,000. On Friday, NTV, a state TV channel, devoted a 30-minute, prime time attack documentary to Golos. On Saturday, customs agents at Moscow’s Sheremeyetevo Airport detained the Lilia Shibanova, the Golos director, for 12 hours. Following telephoned instructions, they confiscated her laptop.
Before the sun rose on voting day, Golos’ website went dark, a victim of as many as 50,000 spam attacks a second. Spam disabled its email and SMS accounts. Waves of robot calls tied up Golos’ hotline telephone numbers all day long.
Why was Golos the Kremlin’s Public Enemy Number One?
Golos is Russia’s only independent election observer group. Working with the Gazeta.ru, the online arm of a Moscow newspaper, it hosts an interactive website – http://kartanarusheniy.ru/
This is a map of Russia, showing in glow red dots the locations of reported cases of election fraud. Internet users can click on their city and scroll through reported violations – 7,135 nationwide, last time I checked. For a system built on secrecy, the transparency of a national internet billboard of election fraud reports was toxic. On voting day, professional hackers – Shibanova charges they are from the FSB, the KGB’s successor agency – knocked down Golos, and about half a dozen independent media sites.
Attesting to the power of the Internet, one affected site, from Echo Moscow radio, draws 2 million individual visitors a month. Echo Moscow and others fought back, offering their news through Facebook and Twitter. Another site, antikarusel.ru, featured films and denunciations of government workers busing groups of voters from one polling station to the next. Smartphones are the universal badge of membership for Russia’s middle class. On Sunday, voters had a field day filming the unfilmable — for the entire nation to see. In one, Yegor Duda, a bearded volunteer election observer, tiptoes down a stairwell filming a gray suited election official as he apparently checks the United Russia box on a fat stack of blank paper ballots. When confronted, the official responds: “Go away!” Yegor did as he was told. He went home. He then posted the video on YouTube. Oops!
As of Tuesday afternoon, 1.1 million people had watched the video. So many videos have been posted that President Medvedev cautioned Russians Monday about their authenticity. The warning probably only boosted internet viewership. Taking on the protesters, Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s ideologue, posted this message on LiveJournal: “Stop wailing, I am sick of you.”
On Sunday, hackers attacked Live Journal, rendering access spotty to Russia’s top blogging site, a space that increasingly is dominated by independent and opposition critiques of Russia.
Alexey Navalny, one of Live Journal’s most popular bloggers, coined a label that United Russia can’t seem to shake. One year ago, he called the ruling party “the party of thieves and swindlers.” Today, if you do a Google search in Russian for United Russia, the most associated phrase that pops up will be “thieves and swindlers.” In a nationwide poll taken last month, more than one third of respondents agreed with the label that Navalny hung around the neck of United Russia – “the party of thieves and swindlers.”
In Russia’s blogosphere, Navalny, a square-jawed, blue-eyed 35-year-old, is seen as a potential presidential candidate in the March 4 elections. But Prime Minister Putin does not want the competition. The authorized candidates are three aging leaders who have been on the political scene here for 20 years. So Monday night, Moscow’s OMON riot police zeroed in on Navalny. They took him out of action, forcing him into a police bus.
From the dark confines of the bus, came a Tweet. “I am in an OMON bus with other guys. They send their greetings to everyone.” As his wife posted news of his 15-day jail sentence, an initial wave of 2,500 sympathizers posted comments on his blog.
Two weeks ago, a data company reported that 51 million Russians now go on line – about 40 percent of the adult population. In the last year, viewership of top Sunday news programs on state-controlled TV dropped by 10 to 14 percent. Last Sunday night, several commentators on state-run television looked at plummeting results for the ruling party and used several variations of the Russian word “katastrofa.” They were soon brought into line. But many analysts believe that this will be Russia’s last election where TV will be the dominant factor. Middle class Russians now take internet freedom as their birthright, along with foreign travel and the ability to choose among 50 models of foreign made cars.
Alexei Venediktov, director of Echo Moscow radio, was unfazed by the hacker attacks on his station. He says of Internet freedom in Russia, “the toothpaste is out of the tube.” Walking home early Tuesday morning, after filing interviews with two protest organizers, I realized that their work was helped by warm temperatures. For early December, Moscow temperatures were unseasonably balmy – 5 degrees C – no need for scarf, hat and gloves.
Unfortunately, for the Kremlin, the weather here feels, oddly, like Spring.