MOSCOW — Armed with an iPhone and sporting his trademark dark blonde afro, Ilya Varlamov surveys the handicapped section of a parking lot near the headquarters of Moscow’s traffic police.
Gone are the gleaming Mercedes-Benzes of the past. In their places are more modest vehicles with badges in their windshields identifying the drivers as disabled.
Chalk it up as another small victory for the 26-year-old Varlamov, whose blogging campaign for “A Country Without Idiocy” and letters to the prosecutor’s office successfully shamed those who were illegally using the handicapped parking spots.
Russian Media Series
“I wouldn’t put it as glamorously as doing my ‘civic duty,'” he says, laughing as he sends out a message to thousands of followers on Twitter before jumping into his car and continuing his morning patrol of the Russian capital.
“I just do what I like doing and what I think is right because I would really like to change things,” Varlamov says. “I simply try to bring these little things to people’s attention so that we can change the situation together.”
It’s not exactly high politics. But many such small acts of civic campaigning about everyday concerns like parking spaces have won Varlamov — or “zyalt” as he is known online — the devotion of tens of thousands of microbloggers and turned him into a cult phenomenon on the Russian Internet.
Varlamov isn’t alone. A groundswell of online civic activism has crystallized in recent years as a new generation of bloggers came of age. Some, like Sergei Dolya, rose to fame on street-level issues like his campaign for “A Country Without Garbage,” which helped get 200 tons of trash removed from Russia’s streets in a single day. Others, like attorney and anticorruption crusader Aleksei Navalny, have made a name exposing graft in high places.
With much of the country’s media under the control of the state, bloggers have filled in the void — often beating the traditional outlets to important stories on issues ranging from parking to high-level corruption.
“In the last two years, a huge amount of stories have first appeared on the blogosphere and only then made it onto federal television and into newspapers,” says Aleksandr Morozov, a prominent Russian blogger. “If these stories hadn’t first been seized upon by bloggers, the blogosphere, and social media, then it is more than possible they would never have come to light.”
Such stories include the involvement of the vice president of LUKoil in a fatal car crash in Moscow that killed two women, whistle-blowing police officers like Aleksei Dymovsky exposing corruption on YouTube, and — of course — Navalny’s online expose of embezzlement totaling $4 billion at the state-owned oil pipeline company Transneft.
It was also Navalny who, on his widely read blog on Live Journal, who first coined the derisive moniker “the party of thieves and swindlers” for the ruling United Russia party — a slogan that has since become a rallying cry for the opposition.
And as more Russians get their news online, the blogosphere’s influence will only increase.
In a sign of Russia’s changing media appetites, 74 percent of Muscovites between the ages of 15 and 30 now say the Internet is their main source of news, according to the Levada Center. Across Russia, some 31 percent now say they use the Internet every day, a six-fold increase from the 5 percent who went online daily in 2006, according to the Russia Public Opinion Research Center.
More than 90 percent of Russians, however, still cite television as their main source of information.
Blogosphere ‘Frightens Authorities’
But in addition to being one of the last media outlets for the free exchange of ideas, the Russian blogosphere also has a dark side. It has given a voice to the country’s more disturbing ultranationalist and xenophobic undercurrents.
As online media’s influence rises, it is also increasingly attracting the attention of the authorities.
On August 2, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev called for greater surveillance of the Internet to prevent Russia’s youth from straying into “extremism.” The next day, the 54-year-old former KGB officer said that “the time has long been ripe to carry out monitoring in the country to find out what they are listening to, what they are reading, [and] what they are watching.”
One blogger responded to the minister’s statements with the question: “Are the thought police coming to Russia?”
Nurgaliyev’s remarks came only days after LiveJournal, Russia’s most popular blogging platform, was hit by a sustained cyberattack for the second time this year. The denial-of-service attack, which overloads and disables sites by inundating them with requests from other computers, took LiveJournal intermittently offline for five days in August.
An earlier attack on LiveJournal in March initially targeted Navalny’s blog.
Then, on September 23, two bloggers in Saratov were arrested for protesting Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika’s call on September 14 for “control over this [online] activity.” Chaika said such controls are “reasonable and in the interest of defending citizens’ freedoms.”
Lame-duck President Dmitry Medvedev has repeatedly said that the fight against extremism should not encroach on free speech on the Internet.
But as Morozov explains, many bloggers fear the authorities will use the excuse of battling extremism to crack down on troublesome opposition bloggers and whistle-blowers.
“The blogosphere frightens the authorities to some extent,” Morozov says. “This is primarily because of the proliferation of nationalistic and extremist content. But having said this, the legislation on social media and new media being prepared at the moment raises a lot of questions.”
“The danger,” he adds, “is that this legislation could be used to poison all the political opposition — even the very moderate opposition.”
Over the past two years the authorities have targeted blogs and other online media with its ever expanding laws on extremism and slander, legislation that has been criticized for being easily abused due to its malleable and vague wording.
Bloggers Now Targeted
Morozov says the situation was further exacerbated when the authorities defined the police force as a “social group,” opening the door for bloggers to be accused of “inciting hatred” when they criticize law-enforcement officers.
Boris Timoshenko of the Glasnost Defense Foundation says the number of bloggers hit by dubious extremism cases is rising steadily.
“Before they never touched bloggers, but now it is becoming common for bloggers to be charged usually with Article 82 on extremism and firing up social discord and interethnic discord,” Timoshenko says. “It is used as a lever of pressure not just on the mass media, but also on the Internet and in particular bloggers.”
The most high-profile of these cases was that of Irek Murtazin, an opposition blogger and writer, who was sentenced to 21 months in jail for “instigating hatred and hostility” toward a social group after he published an incorrect report in September 2008 claiming that Mintimer Shaimiyev, then president of Russia’s Republic of Tatarstan, had died while on an extended vacation in Turkey. He received a 21-month sentence.
But in addition to the attempts at intimidation, Morozov explains that the authorities have also made efforts to reach out to bloggers, particularly in the regions.
“In the past year, almost all the gubernatorial administrations have started taking an interest in the blogosphere and inviting bloggers to meetings, which have sometimes led to forms of cooperation,” Morozov says. “This has not always been a bad thing. Yekaterinburg, home to an independent club of bloggers, is a case in point: This club is so authoritative that it can invite members of the administration to its meetings. The same goes for Kaliningrad — the clubs are so authoritative that the administrations have to cooperate.”
Some bloggers fear that such overtures are nothing more than an attempt to co-opt online journalists.
Varlamov, for example, was invited into the Kremlin “pool,” the select group of journalists with access to Kremlin insiders.
He was also given permission to publish photographs from the office of Vladislav Surkov, the powerful deputy Kremlin chief of staff and the ruling elite’s unofficial ideologist.
The photos included a curious assortment of Surkov’s books, numerous telephones, and portraits of world leaders including President Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and U.S. President Barack Obama, the deceased rapper Tupac Shakur, and the late revolutionary Che Gevara.
Meanwhile, the authorities are trying to get into the blogging act themselves. The Kremlin has opened “schools of bloggers” on various occasions to train a pro-regime online army to harass the opposition and other critical voices on the Internet.
Morozov says the development is worrisome.
“It of course marks a very bad trend when these are semi-secret departments making propaganda specialized in fighting against the opposition,” he warns. “This is of course a disgrace, particularly if they are financed at the expense of the state through the federal program for youth. Of course, this is unacceptable.”