By Anton Troianovski and Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 28, 2007
MOSCOW -- After ignoring the Internet for years to focus on controlling traditional media such as television and newspapers, the Kremlin and its allies are turning their attention to cyberspace, which remains a haven for critical reporting and vibrant discussion in Russia's dwindling public sphere.
Allies of President Vladimir Putin are creating pro-government news and pop culture Web sites while purchasing some established online outlets known for independent journalism. They are nurturing a network of friendly bloggers ready to disseminate propaganda on command. And there is talk of creating a new Russian computer network -- one that would be separate from the Internet at large and, potentially, much easier for the authorities to control.
"The attractiveness of the Internet as a free platform for free people is already dimming," said Iosif Dzyaloshinsky, a mass media expert at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
Putin addressed the question of Internet censorship during a national call-in show broadcast live on radio and television this month. "In the Russian Federation, no control is being exercised over the World Wide Web, over the Russian segment of the Internet," Putin said. "I think that from the point of view of technological solutions, that would not make any sense.
"Naturally, in this sphere, as in other spheres, we should be thinking about adhering to Russian laws, about making sure that child pornography is not distributed, that financial crimes are not committed," he continued. "But that is a task for the law enforcement agencies. Total control and the work of the law enforcement agencies are two different things."
Many people here say they believe Putin didn't mind a free Internet as long as it had weak penetration in Russia. But with 25 percent of Russian adults now online, up from 8 percent in 2002, cyberspace has become an issue of increasing concern for the government.
Some Russian Internet experts say a turning point came in 2004, when blogs and uncensored online publications helped drive a popular uprising in Ukraine after a pro-Moscow candidate was declared the winner of a presidential election. Days of street protests in the capital, Kiev, led to a new vote that brought a pro-Western politician into the presidency.
Today, the Kremlin is ready with online forces of its own when street action begins.
On April 14, an opposition movement held a march in central Moscow that drew hundreds of people; police detained at least 170, including the leader of the march, chess star Garry Kasparov.
Pavel Danilin, a 30-year-old Putin supporter and blogger whose online icon is the fearsome robot of the "Terminator" movie, works for a political consulting company loyal to the Kremlin. He said he and his team, which included people from a youth movement called the Young Guard, quickly started blogging that day about a smaller, pro-Kremlin march held at the same time.
They linked to one another repeatedly and soon, Danilin said, posts about the pro-Kremlin march had crowded out all the items about the opposition march on the Yandex Web portal's coveted ranking of the top five Russian blog posts.
"We played it beautifully," Danilin said.
In a lengthy article published online last fall, three Russian rights activists argued that a strident, vulgar and uniform pro-Kremlin ideology had so permeated blogs and chat rooms that it could only be the result of a coordinated campaign.
Putin's allies in the online world acknowledge that the Internet represents a challenge to the status quo in Russia, which has, since Soviet times, relied on state-controlled television to influence public opinion across the country's 11 time zones.
"You watch the first channel or the second channel and you can only see good things happening in Russia," said Andrei Osipov, the 26-year-old editor of the Web site of Nashi, a pro-Kremlin youth group, referring to national stations that back the Kremlin. "The Internet is the freest mass media. . . . There is competition between state and opposition organizations."
The Kremlin is also increasingly allying itself with privately run online outlets that foster a new ideal for life in today's Russia, one that is consumerist and uncompromisingly pro-Putin.
The main champion of this ideal is 28-year-old businessman Konstantin Rykov. The pearl of Rykov's media empire is the two-year-old Vzglyad ("View") online newspaper, which features a serious-looking news section with stories toeing the Kremlin line and a lifestyle section that covers the latest in luxury cars and interior design. Surveys rank Vzglyad as one of Russia's five most-visited news sites.
"Rykov is a man who created a good business on the government's view that it has to invest in ideology," said Anton Nossik, an Internet pioneer in Russia now in charge of blog development for Sup, an online media company. Nossik said that Vladislav Surkov, Putin's domestic political adviser, organized private funding for Rykov's projects.
Kremlin officials deny any involvement. "It is a general habit of everyone to connect every popular occurrence and success with the Kremlin," deputy Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said when asked about Rykov. "In reality, it is not so."
In an interview, Rykov would not comment on his investors. A framed portrait of Surkov hung above his desk; Rykov is running for parliament on the list of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party in elections slated for December.
"The Vzglyad newspaper has created this appearance of a state publication for itself since the very beginning," Rykov said. "And from the perspective of business and selling ads, that's very good."
Allies of the Kremlin have also begun buying some of the companies that have helped make the Internet a bastion of free expression in Russia. Gazeta.ru, long the country's most respected online newspaper, was sold in December to a metals magnate and Putin loyalist.
And last October, Sup, which is owned by Alexander Mamut, a tycoon with ties to the Kremlin, bought the rights to develop the Russian-language segment of U.S.-based LiveJournal. The segment, with half a million users, is Russia's most popular blog portal.
"Mr. Rykov is pro-Kremlin. Mamut and Sup are pro-Kremlin. The social networks are all being bought by pro-Kremlin people," Ruslan Paushu, 30, a popular blogger who works for Rykov, said in an interview. "Everything's okay."
So far, Gazeta.ru has continued to publish articles critical of the Kremlin, and no widespread censorship has been reported on blogs run by Sup. But as the government wakes up to the Internet's potential, many of Putin's critics are growing nervous.
Prosecutors have begun to target postings on blogs or Internet chat sites, charging users with slander or extremism after they criticize Putin or other officials. Most such incidents have occurred outside Moscow, and federal officials deny that they signal any broader campaign to control the Internet.
"Personally, I am against developing and adopting a special law that would regulate the Internet," Leonid Reiman, minister of information technology and communications, said in a written response to questions. "The Internet has been always developing as a free medium, and it should remain as such."
But in July, Putin briefed his Security Council on plans to make Russia a global information leader by 2015. Russian news media reported that those plans included a new network apart from the global Internet and open only to former Soviet republics.
"To put it bluntly, we need to fight for the water mains," Gleb Pavlovsky, the Kremlin's foremost political consultant, said in an interview. "We need to fight for the central networks and for the audience segments that they reach."
Wolfgang Kleinwaechter, special adviser to the chairmen of the Internet Governance Forum, a group convened by the United Nations, said some Russian officials he has spoken to are considering a separate Internet, with Cyrillic domain names, and appear to be studying China's Internet controls.
Peskov, the deputy presidential spokesman, said in an interview that a Russia-only Internet was still in the "investigative phase," adding, "I don't know if it's more than thinking aloud."
"It's not meant to get rid of the global network," he said. "It's a discussion of creating an addition."
For now, supporters as well as critics of Putin see the Kremlin doing something atypical: competing on more or less equal terms with its opponents.
"Certainly, there's the dark segment that is still saying words like 'prohibit' and 'limit,' " said Marat Guelman, who worked as a political consultant for the Kremlin until 2004, when he broke with the administration. But "what is happening on the Web vis-a-vis the authorities is very good," he added. "That is, they're trying to play the game."
That strategy is in contrast to the way Putin brought the independent television network NTV to heel at the beginning of his term, using highly publicized court cases and raids by heavily armed security forces.
Marina Litvinovich, a blogger who used to work for Pavlovsky, the Kremlin consultant, and now works for Kasparov's United Civil Front, said she is satisfied with the government's approach to the Internet because it forces Putin's allies to respond to criticism rather than simply ignore it.
She also argued that as the Kremlin consolidates political power, it has less incentive to come up with sophisticated online propaganda. "They're not really in need of particular creativity right now," she said.