Cisco-USAID effort to better Russians’ internet skills sparks controversy

Cisco Systems, the U.S. networking giant, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have unveiled their plans to spend up to $50 million in the next few years to promote the use of internet among Russian officials and civilians.

The deal has stirred a mixed reaction, with pro-democracy activists praising the effort and some politicians and analysts dismissing it as “inappropriate” Western ambitions and attempts to interfere in Russia’s political life.

Cisco, which has operated in Russia since the mid-1990s, will contribute the lion’s share of the project funds, with USAID adding some $10 million. The plan is part of Cisco’s announced $1-billion investment program designed to boost the Russian authorities’ modernization efforts, a cornerstone of President Dmitry Medvedev’s political course.

Styling himself as a young and technologically savvy leader with an iPad and a Twitter account, Medvedev has made the development of science and technology his top priority, declaring the internet a “guide of people’s will” that would help improve democracy in Russia.

Alexander Palladin, Cisco spokesman in Russia and former Soviet states, said on Friday the company’s plans to increase the number of schools teaching computer skills to Russians had been approved at the highest level during Medvedev’s visit to California’s Silicon Valley in June 2010.

Since the first Cisco schools were established in the country a decade ago, their number had grown to 150 by the time of Medvedev’s visit, he said.

“We have agreed to significantly increase our operations in Russia, so that the number of our academies reaches 300 in two or three years,” Palladin said. In June 2011, Cisco already operated more than 200 schools in Russia, and by 2015, the figure is expected to reach 650, he said.

The number of internet users in Russia has skyrocketed in the past decade, with more than 40 percent of the country’s 140-million population having access to the web, if compared with just over 2 percent in 2001, according to Internet World Stats.

Meanwhile, Russian officials’ computer skills and their use of the internet still leave much to be desired. Medvedev has moved to improve the situation by launching an “electronic government” project back in 2008 to provide official services to citizens via the internet. But a lack of funds and bureaucratic sluggishness has hampered the effort, forcing Russians to waste hours waiting in lines to fill out numerous documents or meet with officials.

Political scientist Sergei Markov described the Cisco-USAID campaign as a shame for the Russian government which has failed to fulfill “one of its basic functions: the country’s development.”

“Our own investment in the development of information technology is very small, shamefully small I would say,” he said. “Another country (it’s the U.S., in fact) occupies the niche that is treated as a priority around the world, that the Russian government also declared a priority, but that it has not managed to occupy. It’s a slap in the face of our state.”

Russia occupies the 47th position in the list of 152 IT developed countries, two positions up from 2008, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

“We should thank [Cisco and USAID] for the initiative, kindly ask them not to implement it and spend $500 million instead of $50 million ourselves to do the same,” Markov said.

Wi-fi should be “immediately” introduced in all universities across Russia “like it has been done in the West,” the “electronic government” project pushed ahead, and Russian retirees ensured access to the internet, he added.

Foreign conspiracy?

USAID’s participation in the project has raised concerns among some Russian politicians and analysts. The organization, which has carried out several similar projects in Russia involving local government officials, has been accused of using its development programs in such countries as Venezuela and Cuba to bankroll the opposition to defeat the governments. Popular uprisings in Arab countries, where USAID has recently focused its efforts, have further fueled those concerns.

Sergei Belokonev, a pro-Kremlin United Russia party lawmaker, said people in Russia do understand that using modern communications means provides them with “more freedom.”

The Russian president is “the main guide promoting internet mobility today,” and it is “incorrect” to allow “some outsider organizations to teach our officials how to use the internet,” because their “knowledge of technology is no worse than that of U.S. [officials].”

“Such cares by various foreign and international organizations are inappropriate,” said Belokonev, who is also a deputy chairman of a parliamentary committee in charge of youth affairs and one of the leaders of the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth movement.

Dmitry Orlov, the head of the Russian Agency of Political and Economic Communications, said the funds that Cisco and USAID were planning to spend on their education projects were “much larger than usual allocations” for similar projects.

“I believe that this decision may have an implied political sense,” Orlov, a United Russia party member, said. “I do not rule out that this [plan] includes spending on non-commercial organizations with political tendencies.”

If so, he said, the plan would “contribute to the creation of a system of indirect influence on Russia’s political process.”

Nashi leader Nikita Borovikov said projects like this should be taken under control.

“We should look very closely at those programs and at what is included in them,” he said, adding: “If we are able to use U.S. money to strengthen our statehood, this would be good.”

Mikhail Pakhomov, who coordinates Cisco’s cooperation with Russian government agencies, dismissed allegations about any political motivation behind the project.

“Those conspiracy theories are nonsense,” he said. “The problem is that there is a lack of knowledge and specialists on information technologies. We are a commercial organization, we want our business to develop here, and we need specialists to achieve this.”

“USAID has offered its cooperation, and we agreed,” he added.

USAID has spent $2.6 billion to support health care, civil society, local governance and rule of law in Russia since it began working in the country two decades ago. Direct contributions to Russian non-governmental organizations make up just over half of the organization’s local budget.

Prominent Russian blogger Anton Nosik said he believed the Cisco-USAID project would only upset “those whose business is to frighten children with America.”

“I have not heard that opposition officials exist,” he said. “But I heard about officials who have no idea about the internet, and it would be good if our state taught them to use it,” Nosik said.

The absence of internet skills among Russian bureaucrats is a “much more important factor approaching Arab-style revolutions in our country than USAID,” he said.

“There are people who suffer from paranoia, and it’s pointless to try to persuade them not to be afraid; only pills can help them,” he went on. “But mentally competent people are aware of the fact that the internet originated from the United States.”

“And if anyone is afraid that the United States deliberately smears technology to Russia in order to trigger an Orange Revolution,” he said, referring to the 2004 popular protests in Ukraine that brought pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko to power, “then, we should also be afraid of wi-fi, which is in the air: a very hostile factor.”

“Enemies are all around,” he said.


MOSCOW, October 14

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