A Russian blogger created a huge stir in Moscow by accusing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of abusing his office this week, demonstrating the growing influence of the blogosphere in this "managed democracy."
Alexei Navalny charges that in building a new "popular front" to support his bid for national leadership, Mr. Putin is ignoring most of the tough regulations for creating a nongovernmental organization that he authored during his years in the Kremlin.
In the past, a single citizen complaining about the (possibly illegal) hypocrisies of the powerful would be unlikely to get very far. But Mr. Navalny is helping change that dynamic.
A tireless anticorruption campaigner, Navalny rocketed into public view last year by posting online documents that seemed to implicate the state-owned Transneft pipeline company in fraud amounting to billions of dollars.
"Navalny's blog has become very popular, and a lot of people are watching closely," says Alexei Lukatsky, a Moscow-based Internet consultant. "So far, the authorities try not to notice him."
But, perhaps due to the growing clout of Russia's blogosphere, Navalny's trenchant open letter to Russian chief prosecutor Yury Chaika, posted on his popular LiveJournal blog, has reappeared in the large daily newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, been widely discussed on the independent Ekho Moskvi radio station, and drawn a worried response from Mr. Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.
Putin announced the creation of the People's Front a month ago with the aim of "strengthening the country" and solving unspecified national problems, which many analysts interpreted as creating a vehicle for his ambitions for a presidential return.
Since then, millions of people and about 500 public organizations and private companies have joined up, and the Front has reportedly leased premises on Moscow's central Novy Arbat street.
Putin's Popular Front
"Companies across Russia have been responding with enthusiasm to Putin’s proposal that their teams join the People’s Front. They are sending greetings and actually joining that association," Navalny wrote. "But at the current time the United People’s Front has not acquired the [legal] status of a public association... . It is unclear how the People’s Front, not being a legal entity or a public association, that is, without being subject to civil law, could conclude a lease agreement for non-residential premises and office staff."
Moreover, Navalny continued, Putin and Mr. Peskov have held meetings on behalf of the Front using government offices and state personnel – including themselves – and other taxpayer-funded resources, which Russian law forbids.
Navalny urged Mr. Chaika to investigate the allegations, which, if proven, would be "grounds to liquidate it or ban its activities" under strict Putin-era legislation designed to keep politically active NGOs under tight state supervision and control.
Many analysts say Navalny is doing the equivalent of shouting "the emperor has no clothes," though few expect much to come of it.
"In Russia there is little respect for the law, or proper procedures. Many people still place their hopes for the better future on Putin, so if he wants to create his movement they will agree that it's necessary," he says. "But, let's be clear, people are only indifferent in these general areas that don't touch upon their direct material interests. If Putin wanted to slash pensions by even a few rubles, he'd never hear the end of that."
50 million Russians online
The Russian-language Internet, known as Ru.net, has exploded to almost 50 million users in recent years, with 1 in 4 Russian families now having broadband coverage.
According to Russia's leading Internet company, Yandex, there are 3.5 million blogs now inhabiting Ru.net, the only Russian media space that features freewheeling discussion and no official interference, despite a recent suspicious hacker attack on a popular website.
Experts differ over the political implications of having an expanding island of robust free speech within a society where it is still considered futile, if not dangerous, to openly challenge authority.
"The influence of the bloggers' community is growing noticeably," says Rustem Agadamov, author of the popular blog Drugoi. "Even the traditional mass media recognize this, because they quote more and more from blogs and use them as sources of information."
"The president himself seems to read peoples' comments to his blog or Twitter feed, and sometimes he reacts publicly to discussions going on on other popular sites," says Mr. Lukatsky. "It's hard to say whether it's becoming a real instrument through which society can influence the state, but its growing influence simply can't be ignored."
Social media's rise
The role of electronic media in this year's Arab Spring, as well as spiraling unrest in next-door Belarus has got the Kremlin's attention, says Andrei Soldatov, editor of Agentura.ru, an online journal that reports on the security services.
"In the Kremlin, they have the idea that bloggers are associated with Western interests," he says. "When people like [US Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton talk about the liberating role of social media, they take that very seriously, as a threat. They are actively working on ways to deal with it."
Peskov responded to the open letter of Navalny, who holds a law degree, by telling the Ekho Moskvi radio station that he sees no reason to open a dialogue about the Front, a subject which he said "is extremely clear to qualified lawyers." He added that if the prosecutor wants to ask Putin any questions, answers will be provided.
But while blogs are beginning to give voice to many activists who would have been voiceless not too long ago, some analysts say the Internet's influence is limited to a small slice of educated, middle class, and mostly big-city Russians.
"Russia is much bigger than the blogosphere," says Sergei Strokan, a columnist with the Moscow business daily Kommersant. "If we're talking about influencing elections, or other real political processes, then the Internet's impact is probably quite minimal. Most Russians are not concerned with abstract violations of freedom, and so blogs like Navalny's are really interesting only for a tiny minority."
Mr. Strokan says that, no matter what you may read in blogs, Russian political reality is still mostly controlled by officials who mostly don't use the Internet.
"Russia is a country that's ruled not on the basis of law, but by the instruments of law," he says. "It's quite clear that if a political decision is taken to see no violations of law in the case of Putin's popular front, then none will be perceived."