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Internet: Russia’s new anti-Putin weapon

As jokes and spoof videos about Putin, who is expected to win back the presidency in Sunday’s polls, spread like wildfire on social networking sites and YouTube, opposition activists are using the Internet to promote their cause.
After a slow start, Internet use has sky-rocketed in Russia in recent years and last year the country overtook Germany as having Europe’s largest number of Internet users, a development the opposition have not hesitated to exploit.

This week a Moscow-based programme developer, Alexei Chistyakov (29) presented a new iPhone app. to allow election monitors at polling stations to instantly report violations.  It will link up to a call centre organised jointly by the Yabloko liberal party and the League of Voters, an umbrella group of celebrities and bloggers who are using their clout to rally election observers.

"It’s an easy way to report violations," Chistyakov said of the free app, which he designed and developed with a French company, while fearing repercussions for the Russian company where he works.  The elections "are already unfair, let’s start with that," he said. "We are doing all this so that people on the outside also acknowledge they are unfair."

Activist Ilya Yashin (28) of the Solidarity movement said he feels equally at home with the audience of his blogs as when yelling out speeches at the mass rallies for fair elections.  "I feel comfortable with the Internet audience and with people who have never used the Internet.  I feel that’s my advantage,  I was never just an offline politician or just online," he said.

Putin, who has slammed the Internet as "50% pornography", has barely entered the Internet battle, but worryingly for the Russian strongman, that’s hardly representative of Russians today.  Forty-four percent use the Internet as one of their main news sources as  a December poll by the independent Levada centre found, although state-dominated television news remains stronger, with 78 percent watching.

"Obviously there is a trend for the growing influence of the Internet, but of course the Internet cannot compete with television. The status quo remains that public opinion is shaped by television," said Yashin.  Aiming to change that are Internet sites such as Ridus.ru, a "citizens’ news" service founded last Autumn where anyone can submit a story and which covers the opposition rallies in detail.

"I think the Internet will become the main source of information for people who are interested in news.  At the moment, it’s television, but that’s changing," said Timofei Vasilyev, a staff journalist at Ridus.  "Fewer and fewer people believe in the television while more and more people believe in the Internet."


The founder of Russia’s largest social networking site, Vkontakte, Pavel Durov, ran an online poll ahead of December’s parliamentary elections.  Out of more than 4 million votes, only 21 percent were for the ruling party United Russia. 


Putin’s campaign manager, film director Stanislav Govorukhin, recently called the Internet a "rubbish dump."
In a possible own goal, the campaign recently posted online television ads with celebrity endorsements of Putin.
The result — bloggers and journalists pored over them and concluded a popular actress looked as if she could have been coerced into appearing to protect her children’s charity.

Also popular television and radio host Ksenia Sobchak went on to score far better online with a spoof video in which she demurely backed Putin, only for the camera to cut away to reveal guns pointed to her head.  Yashin was scornful of Putin’s team’s attempts to win hearts and minds on the Internet.  "I think it looks pretty ridiculous. They make quite a mess of it. We’re not afraid of competition on the Internet," he said.

AFP/Anna Malpas and Laetitia Peron/Expatica