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.
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.
In that respect, the Kremlin is using the Internet to create a parody of a real political process. Yes, the authorities may be soliciting inputs to a new law, but ultimately that bill will be approved in a State Duma where the vast majority of deputies are members of the Kremlin’s party. Observers agree that elections are still rigged. Regional governors are no longer elected by the people, but appointed by the president and confirmed by the province’s legislature. NGOs are harassed. And crusading journalists are killed.
But at least now you can blog about it or tweet the president.
While traditional media is largely under the Kremlin’s yoke, the Russian Internet is actually remarkably free, with a lively blogosphere and a vibrant culture of social networking. The prevailing wisdom is that all the dissent aired on blogs and social networks could eventually backfire on the Kremlin. Recently, a rapper, Noize MC, who had a brutal brush with the police, became a viral sensation, raising hopes for digital activism in Russia.
Why authoritarian regimes might allow online activism
So why would the Kremlin allow such Internet-based freedom? One possibility being considered by Internet theorists is that authoritarian countries might calculate that allowing online dissent is more effective than curbing it. It can actually serve as a useful pressure valve for the opposition to let off steam, giving dissenters the guise of freedom without the regime having to concede the reality of representation. Tolerating digital dissent also allows the authorities to gauge the volatility of opposition.
This reasoning may lie behind the Iranian authorities’ decision not to pull the plug on the Internet during last year’s postelection unrest. With all those green Twitter avatars and videos dedicated to Neda Agha-Soltan (the woman shot amid the mass protests), the Iranian regime might have calculated that allowing online activism actually helped to relieve the pressure on the street.
Rebecca MacKinnon, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, has written about “networked authoritarianism,” where “the average person with Internet or mobile access has a much greater sense of freedom...in ways that weren’t possible under classic authoritarianism. At the same time, in the networked authoritarian state there is no guarantee of individual rights and freedoms.”
Repressive governments are rapidly remaking the Internet, with its fundamentally liberal origins, in their own image. The Kremlin doesn’t see the Internet as democracy’s enabler, but prefers to see it as its ultimate loophole: a political Second Life that’s lively and diverse, but ultimately a sham.