The Russian Equivalent of Wingnut Welfare

More and more, I’m noticing that the news here in Russia (and yes, I do try to watch the news on TV here, despite the language barrier) seems to exist in some strange parallel universe.  When I switch back and forth between the BBC World News, CNN International, and then the Russian news on RBK and Channel First, there is a massive disconnect. Maybe it’s just because we’re in a particularly delicate election year – an editorial that ran in the Moscow Times recently talked about all the simmering uneasiness regarding Putin’s succession (the original ran in Vedomosti, and I can only hope that the editor who wrote it isn’t re-living a Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch right now).

to guess the identity of President Vladimir Putin’s choice as his
successor and how he or she will come to power is a game that just
continues to grow in popularity. Speculation is also swirling over
whether the next president will use the system Putin has created to
determine national and international policy, ditch the system
altogether, or keep parts of it.

at Renaissance Capital, for example, believe the successor will either
follow the “Brezhnev model” and try to maintain the status quo, or will
be a reformer, following what they label the “Peter the Great model.”
These comparisons are a bit surprising, but not because of the nature
of historical parallels.

This issue is becoming particularly urgent because under Putin, a lot of people have amassed staggering wealth.  Quite naturally, they’d like to keep it.  And now that they have this much money, they can certainly shell out a few bucks here and there to, shall we say, “influence” things to continue going pretty much as they have in that past.  Which is why speaking out about the theft, corruption, murder, intimidation and bombings here is becoming quite perilous.

Politics under these conditions is a third rail for established media.  But there is still a great deal of interest in what is going on in this country that isn’t being talked about in the media.  And as nature abhors a vacuum, so too does the media ecosystem.

Bloggers to the rescue

Here are the nut grafs:

Masha Lipman, a political expert at the Moscow
Carnegie Center, says that web forums like Live Journal provide an
arena for free debate that is no longer available in much of the
conventional media.

“There is indeed a lot of free exchange on
the Internet,” Lipman says. “The question in Russia is not that there
are no outlets where free expression is possible. The question is that
the Kremlin has radically marginalized all outlets that pursue even
reasonably independent editorial lines.

“Russians are the
second-largest group of users of Live Journal, a popular U.S. blogger
site. In Russia, the site currently has more than 1.1 million users and
67,500 interest groups. On September 5 alone, 1,600 new users joined
Live Journal in Russia and almost 500,000 new comments were posted.

Censorship Impossible?

I think the Internet is one of the reasons Russia is still not an
authoritarian regime, because you cannot really shut down the Internet
without very serious measures,” says Yulia Latynina, a political
commentator whose columns are frequently posted on Live Journal.

Just this week, a blogger got thrown in jail for two years for advocating revolution.  The Kremlin has, belatedly, realized that they need to try to clamp down on the discussion online – but the tools that they’ve employed to do so have only ensured that more and more ordinary Russians are getting interested in what it is that was said that caused so much of a reaction.

However, the censorship is getting subtler and more insidious. Apparently, the Kremlin is paying bloggers to go into LiveJournal and produce pro-government content.  Not out-and-out propaganda – the average Russian has very sensitive antennae that can pick up a bullshit press release a mile away.  But apparently, they are getting sophisticated about producing content that subtly reinforces what the government wants you to see, hear and think.

The U.S., of course, has problems along these lines – it has long been an article of faith that bloggers and internet sites that promote the pro-Bush stance have been getting secret payments and support from the government and Bush’s allies.  There’s even a phrase for it: “Wingnut Welfare.”

Still, it is inspiring to see that even under these conditions, the ordinary people on the web are brave enough, and inspired enough, to defy the attempts to brainwash them, to suppress them, to intimidate them.  In this way, at least, the web is struggling to live up the hype of being the invention that allows freedom to reign … although I fear that the increasing sophistication of the governments to stack the ideological deck are only going to get more insidious.

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