Newspaper article International New York Times

Can the Internet Defeat Putin?

Newspaper article International New York Times

Can the Internet Defeat Putin?

Article excerpt

The biggest threat facing Navalny and the protesters isn't the government, it's public apathy.

On Tuesday, a court in Moscow convicted Russia's top opposition blogger, Aleksei A. Navalny, of criminal fraud. Mr. Navalny, who has been under house arrest for nearly a year, was given a suspended sentence and spared jail time. His younger brother Oleg, however, was sentenced to serve three and a half years. Aleksei Navalny is an anti-corruption activist and outspoken critic of President Vladimir V. Putin, and the verdicts were seen as a cynical strategy to punish him without turning him into an imprisoned martyr.

Mr. Navalny responded furiously, rallying protests in Moscow's Manezh Square. He even defied his house arrest to attend the demonstrations himself, which led swiftly to his detention and a return to his home. Even before the verdict was announced, more than 10,000 Russians had indicated on Facebook that they would attend a protest in support of Mr. Navalny. The actual turnout was much more modest. Still, thousands of Russians took to the streets despite the threat of arrests, the bitter cold and the approaching New Year holiday.

Mr. Navalny, a 21st-century Russian dissident, presents a new kind of threat to the Putin regime. He was the first Russian activist to have used the Internet as an effective tool of political resistance. In the past, he and his followers have demonstrated that Russia's opposition activists are not simply "virtual," but are also capable of getting people onto the streets.

This is a relatively recent phenomenon. For a long time, the Internet didn't matter in Russia, at least as a weapon of the opposition. When I lived in Moscow in 2010, the Russian Internet was a generally free space, largely because the Kremlin didn't take it seriously. It seemed to view the web as a virtual playground where people could complain and joke about politics, but where there was no threat of real-life action.

The Internet just reflected offline realities. Most Russians didn't think they had any impact on their political situation. Elections were viewed as predetermined. Protests were sparsely attended, and often ended with protesters' being rounded up by the police. The Internet, simply by existing, was not going to change this overall picture.

Enter Mr. Navalny, who understood that his countrymen were tired of pointless street demonstrations. He decided to show Russians that they could make a difference, from the comfort of their homes. "I propose to people the comfortable way of struggle," Mr. Navalny explained to me in 2010. He didn't ask people to revolt, he just called on them to file online complaints. He provided detailed instructions for appealing to the authorities, and asked his supporters to report everything from unrepaired potholes to suspicious government contracts. …

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