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Russia as a sort of cyber-democracy? The Kremlin is giving it a shot.

a shift in thought

The Russian public has a lot of faith in Vladimir Putin's ability to improve their lives; witness his call-in show Thursday. In other officials though, not so much. So the Kremlin is trying to expand its online outreach to bolster direct communication with the people.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual televised call-in show in Moscow on Thursday.
Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AP
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Since becoming Russia's top leader almost two decades ago, Vladimir Putin has developed various methods of talking to the Russian public over the heads of other institutions and authorities, with the aim of establishing a problem-solving dialogue directly with the people.

Best known of these is his annual “Direct Line” telethon, the latest iteration of which happens Thursday. In the event, Mr. Putin answers questions from linked studio audiences around the country, as well as emailed and SMS queries. He often directly addresses acute social problems such as inter-ethnic relations, solves people's personal problems on-the-spot, and even discloses intimate details of his personal life.

But the TV spectacle is only the tip of the iceberg – one that the Kremlin is hoping to grow into a wired-up, ultra-modern open society in which citizens will be able to deliver their grievances, petitions, and legislative initiatives in person to their leaders without having to depend on the mediation of 20th century institutions like legislatures, opinion polls, or the media.

Now, as a new presidential election looms, the Kremlin is looking hard at indications such as extremely low voter turnout in last September's parliamentary elections that suggest Russia's electorate is losing faith in the existing system. In response, it is intensifying its embrace of digital innovations that claim to fix the problems.

Even some critics say the idea has promise. “Everything is changing in the world, not just Russia,” says Vlada Muravyova, an adviser to the Civic Initiatives Committee headed by liberal ex-Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin. “There's new technology, the younger generation is becoming active and people are dissatisfied with classical channels of communication. Decision-making should be quicker, and public participation stepped up....”

But, the critics add, the Kremlin's plan has come amid concerted measures to limit genuine electoral competition, to prune the media landscape, and to sideline independent public opinion polling. “It's good to have mechanisms for bringing new initiatives to the attention of government,” Ms. Muravyova says. “Though, the initiatives are one thing, and what officials do with them are quite another.”

'A real chance to move forward'?

The effort to build a network of alternative channels for top authorities to interface directly with the public is as old as the Putin era.

As he prepared to return to the Kremlin for his third term in 2012, Putin issued a series of public "manifestos" to set forth the policies he intended to follow. One of the least-noticed of these was a lengthy blueprint for building a "participatory democracy" using the latest information technology, published in the Moscow daily Kommersant.

"It is necessary to adjust the mechanisms of the political system so that it captures and reflects the interests of social groups in a timely way, and ensures that those interests are addressed," Putin wrote. "That would not only increase the legitimacy of the authorities, but also people's confidence that they act fairly.... We must be able to respond to the demands of society, which are growing increasingly complicated and, in the information age, are acquiring fundamentally new features."

While the annual TV spectacle is arguably the most overt such effort, the many thousands of queries, criticisms, and grievances that pour in to the show – most of which, despite the typically four-hour program length, do not get aired – are carefully collected, collated, and analyzed by the Kremlin to determine broad currents of public opinion and identify sore points that might require further action.

Last month Putin moved to apply that approach beyond the telethon, by mandating the presidential service to collect and analyze all citizens' appeals and petitions, and then redistribute them downward with orders for lower levels of government to deal with them.

The main agency responsible for organizing and maintaining this ambitious digital project to reinvent government is the Information Democracy Foundation, a nonprofit organization that says it is funded by various Russian IT firms, and headed by Ilya Massukh, a former deputy minister of communications.

Reached by telephone, Mr. Massukh said that e-democracy is not intended to substitute for established institutions but to supplement them and provide new tools for overcoming the notorious inertia of Russian bureaucracy.

"Democracy is not in the genes of Russians, so these new ways of communicating directly between government and society offers a real chance to move forward," he says. "It's a logical step, and President Putin is quite serious about using new technology to improve management. He is a big supporter of e-government."

But Russia's formal political system established by the constitution, with its autonomous institutions such as parliament, is being eroded purposefully as the Kremlin seeks greater and more direct power, says Nikolai Petrov, a professor of political science at Moscow's Higher School of Economics.

"But, obviously, something new must be invented to create the impression of close contact with Russian citizens, who are becoming more sophisticated in many ways," he says. "So the Kremlin is developing various methods of getting feedback from society, bypassing not only elections, but also regional authorities, whose [communiques to the Kremlin] are no longer seen as reliable."

A technology-politics disconnect

In 2013, the Kremlin ordered Massukh's Foundation to set up an internet portal, called the Russian Public Initiative, which boasts that it has since posted over 10,000 petitions on its website. Each appeal purportedly originates from a grassroots source, and can be voted upon directly by website visitors. When a petition addressed to Moscow authorities reaches 100,000 votes, for example, it will be forwarded to an "expert panel" to determine what action should be taken. It's no guarantee that the appeal will be granted.

One example is a grassroots petition asking authorities to cancel the "Yarovaya Law," a sweeping set of anti-extremism measures that accord vast powers to security services and severely limit civil rights, including those for religious minorities. The petition was adopted and forwarded for consideration to the authorities with a request to cancel the law. Not mentioned on the site is the fact that the "expert panel" rejected the petition, finding the law fully in conformity with the Russian constitution, though it ruled that some amendments might be considered in future.

"The Russian Public Initiative was supposed to become a platform of true 'people's power,' a means of self-organization for citizens that offers the government and parliament ways to correct errors," says Anita Soboleva, a member of the Kremlin's Human Rights Commission. "After a while it became obvious that it doesn't work as such a channel, because even those initiatives that got enough votes were never turned over to the competent authorities to be considered."

She argues the key problem with all this electronic paper shuffling is that everything comes back to the same old officials, who now may have more work to do, but are as free as ever to ignore, punt, or misrepresent the public's complaints.

"All proposals are sinking in a viscous ooze," she says. "Officials may just write that they have, indeed, studied, analyzed and summarized [the public inputs], but find it impossible or impractical to make any changes, or require more time to sum up, clarify, specify, etc.  There is not really any more genuine communication than there used to be."