Russia's 'YouTube democracy' is a sham
The Kremlin is embracing the Internet, heralding online participation as 'direct democracy.' This might seem like a progressive step for Russia. In reality, it’s just a smokescreen – the guise of free society without real political process or representation.
Prague, Czech Republic
With Russians up in arms about police corruption after a series of high-profile scandals, the Kremlin decided it had to do something. So it drafted a new police law and posted the bill on the Internet. The response was overwhelming: more than 20,000 Russians commented on the law, many of them offering detailed suggestions for changes.Skip to next paragraph
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This, according to the Kremlin, is the future of governance in Russia. Speaking in May, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said, “I am absolutely confident that there will come an epoch of return from representative democracy to direct democracy with the help of the Internet.”
On the surface, initiatives like crowdsourcing legal changes might seem like a progressive, liberalizing step taken by a tech-savvy government. But in reality they are merely an exercise in political theater which actually bypasses representative democracy.
As less-than-democratic states understand the Internet’s vital role in economic development and are fearful of being cast as press-freedom pariahs, they will increasingly pursue sophisticated avenues of control, instead of simply restricting access.
Medvedev on Twitter
In recent years, Medvedev has become infatuated with the idea that technology can be Russia’s savior. When he’s not video-blogging or promoting Russia’s plans for its own Silicon Valley, he’s hanging out with the folks at Twitter or boasting about his love of gadgets.
After Medvedev sent his first tweet in May, Russian politicians signed up for the micro-blogging service in droves. The Russian president’s idea is that through social networking and blogging, public officials will have a direct line to their constituents and be better attuned to their needs.
But other developments hint at what the future of Russia’s “direct democracy” might hold. A new political talk show, Duel, allows viewers to vote by text message to decide who wins the debate. A Kremlin ideologue, Gleb Pavlovsky, has set up a social-networking site, where the Kremlin taps users for help in shaping its ideology. In recent months, pro-Putin bloggers have even started describing Russia as a “plebiscitary regime.” What's next, American Idol-style elections?
Liberalization without democratization
So, isn’t this openness a sign of better representation and a democracy finally shedding its Soviet past? No. For the Kremlin, the Internet has just become a new facilitator for an old dynamic – liberalization without democratization. For years now, the government has set up and funded civil-society bodies widely criticized by rights activists as mere smokescreens. Under Vladimir Putin, “direct democracy” meant town-hall meetings and a yearly hot line with the general public.