Russia’s ruling party trying to join the Internet age

This is a guest note by Oleg Reut, Associate Professor at Petrozavodsk University, who blogs about Russian and international politics at: thelastpageof.livejournal.com

As Russia prepares for the December 2011 State Duma election, the pro-Kremlin United Russia party is trying a variety of new tactics to reverse its declining public support. There is so much distortion in   domestic media and polling that no-one can be sure just what is the public support level for United Russia:  estimates range from 30 to 70 percent.

United Russia has found itself outflanked in the blogosphere by its more agile opponents – most notably blogger Alexei Navalny, who dubbed the ruling party “the party of thieves and crooks”, a term that has now gained wide currency.  (His blog, in Russian can be found here.) Internet activists have carried out several successful campaigns in recent months, targeting extreme right radicals.

Still, enthusiasm about the Internet as a means for driving political activism must be tempered by reality. More than 60 percent of Russia’s 141 million people are not Internet users.  Just 9 percent use the Internet as a source of news and information. On-line news reporting and commentary means nothing to the 70 percent of Russians who rely on the largely state-controlled television to stay informed (a figure that drops to 35 percent in Moscow and in St. Petersburg). They have never heard of the leading political bloggers in Russia, nor of the campaigns that bloggers consider successful.

Will the internet serve to help the struggling opposition parties, shut out of the mainstream media, to build support in the general population? Or will it serve to boost the dominant United Russia at the expense of these other parties?  Maybe the Internet merely replicates the inequalities of the real world, providing smaller parties with no real advantage.

An article in Izvestiya on August 25 (in Russian) shows the efforts that United Russia is investing in the blogosphere, mobilizing “trolls” to push the party line on various blog discussion sites.  As yet United Russia only has 100,000 friends in the leading social network site V Kontakte, while the Communist Party has 70,000. One problem which the party has identified is that party groups in the regions tend to parrot the official agenda from Moscow rather than responding to local grievances. The party’s youth wing Nashi has also been mobilized for the struggle.

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