Webmedev? Russian president's new blog gets earful from the masses

Medvedev launches a new blog just as the Kremlin cracks down on Internet free speech in Russia.

By , Correspondent

MOSCOWRussia is going to the blogs.

Or so it may seem after the country's first Internet-savvy Kremlin leader, President Dmitry Medvedev, set up his own wide-open LiveJournal blog (click here to visit) aiming, according to his press secretary, to bypass bureaucratic barriers and engage his voters in direct and uncensored conversation.

Three days after the site was established, featuring video statements taken from Mr. Medvedev's Kremlin website, the president has yet to weigh in personally on any of the thousands of sometimes politically-charged comments posted by Russian visitors sheltering behind anonymous nicknames as various as "homo sapiens," "glukhoi" (deaf), and "uncle Sam."

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Among the missives sent Medvedev's way that have so far gone unanswered was an early complaint by "Voros1," who asked: "What's the point of writing anything here, he won't read it anyway."

Another blogger, going by the impolite moniker "govnyashki," which is probably better left untranslated, also doubted that the president would be tuning in at all. "Tell Dmitry [Medvedev] that his blog is dull, tedious, and awful," he advised the Kremlin press handlers.

Others, however, appear to take it quite seriously.

"Wow, I've left a comment on the LiveJournal of our president. I am cool," wrote "skaiper" on Friday. "As for you Dmitry Anatolyevich, I wish that you could revive Mother Russia. I believe in you."

Another, "senseone," wanted to know if he could use the site to go over the heads of officials in his hometown: "Can I complain about our local authorities here?... So that they'll get punished later?"

www.putin.com? Nyet

The LiveJournal social networking site has nearly 3 million Russian language users, and Medvedev's blog is something of a latecomer. Other leading Russian politicians, including oppositionist Boris Nemtsov, liberal billionaire Alexander Lebedev, and upper house parliamentary speaker Sergei Mironov, have had online presences there for quite awhile.

But the Kremlin's bold move online has triggered a storm of discussion among the old-fashioned commentariat, some of whom praise Medvedev for breaking through the suffocating filters imposed by officialdom and appealing straight to the person-on-the-street.

"It's a serious political move," says Vyacheslav Igrunov, director of the independent Institute of Humanitarian and Political Studies in Moscow. "He's seeking to win his political independence, to establish his own personal face."

Mr. Igrunov's suggestion is that Medvedev, a self-confessed Internet geek, may be using the medium to differentiate himself from his still-powerful mentor and predecessor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who used to hold marathon televised press conferences (for more on these, click here), but has yet to venture into cyberspace.

Buoying up his own brand could be an urgent task for Medvedev. A survey released this week by the Canadian polling firm GlobeScan found that just 15 percent of Russians think Medvedev is really in charge, while 27 percent think Mr. Putin still holds the reins of power. A further 41 percent believe that the two are sharing leadership, but 57 percent think Putin will return to the presidency soon.

Medvedev's blog a PR stunt?

In recent weeks, Medvedev has launched other initiatives that seem calculated to distance his image from that of the hard-line, conservative Putin, such as granting an interview (read more here) to the crusading oppositionist weekly newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

But others say it's little more than a publicity stunt, aimed at distracting peoples' attention from the country's rapidly worsening economic situation. "People don't believe they have a voice today, and they're right," says Masha Lipman, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "This blog might be fun, but people don't take it seriously. It can't substitute for genuine channels through which the public might influence the government."

And many share the doubts of "Voros1" that Medvedev will ever actually read peoples' submissions to the site.

"It would be useful for Medvedev only if he had the time and desire to actually associate with people [on the blog], and then he might get to feel their pain," says Viktor Shenderovich, one of Russia's leading political satirists, who was forced out of the mainstream media after Putin came to power. "But past experience suggests this is a pure PR action. Medvedev's assistants will never allow people's real thoughts and feelings to reach him; they will just feed him portions of it," he says.

Will new restrictions shut down Medvedev's blog?

A few critics say the Kremlin blog is camouflage for an intended crackdown on Internet free speech. A Moscow court ruled this week that officials may shut down any website that posts "extremist" comments, and one popular website based in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg has already been forced to close its forum.

Aksana Panova, editor of the Ura.ru online newspaper, says she will be compelled to shut down the commentary site after receiving two warnings from the FSB security service about extremist comments – such as "Death to Medvedev" – that editors were too slow to remove.

"Our forum was a wonderful thing. People could come there to discuss any piece of news or exchange their ideas," Ms. Panova says. "What's happened to us is a very dangerous precedent. Lots of newspapers have such forums now ... but it means that you're vulnerable to any bad remark, any provocation."

Her plan is to write to Medvedev – via his blog – to explain the problem. "The principle of free speech is not working if teams of moderators filter everything. And what's the use of such a blog if moderators kill it?" Panova says. If extremists post something objectionable on Medvedev's site, "then will it be closed the way our forum has been?" she asks.

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