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Global Briefing: Russian Politics Moves Online

by Khatuna Mshvidobadze

Social media today is becoming such a powerful political force that it might be called the fifth estate. And that fifth estate played an important role in Russia during the run up to the March 4 elections for that country's parliament and presidency. Georgians-who sustained combined Russian kinetic and cyber attacks in 2008-watched with more than passing interest. The Putin regime, it seems, turned some of the cyber techniques employed against Georgia against its own domestic opposition. The Kremlin openly wondered whether the Runet-as the Russian portion of the Internet is called-could become the fuse that ignited a Russian autumn to match the so-called Arab Spring.

"Look at the situation that has unfolded in the Middle East and the Arab world," Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told the National Antiterrorist Committee in February 2011. "It is extremely bad. There are major difficulties ahead...We need to look the truth in the eyes. This is the kind of scenario that they were preparing for us, and now they will be trying even harder to bring it about."

Soon after Medvedev's lament, Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika told his CIS counterparts, "You saw what happened in London...In my opinion, the problem is evident and we need to bring social networks under reasonable control-simply to protect citizens' freedoms."

The Moscow political establishment-or some portions of it, at least-appeared alarmed as elections loomed. Why? Because Russia has become the biggest user in Europe and Internet penetration is also increasing. According to the Russian Ministry of Communications, in 2011, 70 million people were connected to the Internet, of whom 80% were active users. By 2013, the Runet could have more than 90 million users.

And these figures are largely driven by the popularity of social media in Russia. For example, Vkontakte, Russia's most famous social network, has a daily audience of 30 million. And the Live Journal blog site is also immensely popular. In Russia, these two dwarf Facebook and Twitter. This growing phenomenon has international and domestic consequences.

With so many people equipped to hear "dangerous" ideas, one can imagine that the Russian government is anxious to protect its people against infection from abroad. Consequently, Russian diplomats have been pushing around the United Nations General Assembly a warmed over version of a Shanghai Cooperation Organization Agreement on Cooperation in the Field of International Information Security.

The core idea of the agreement is to outlaw the broadcast by mass media or across the Internet of any information that could "distort the perception of the political system, social order, domestic and foreign policy, important political and social processes in the state, spiritual, moral and cultural values of its citizens."

So far, the idea has not gained much traction. As we have seen over the last year or so, however, most ideas that the Kremlin considers dangerous originate not across the world, but across town. In the run-up to the recent elections, social media became the platforms for political consciousness, discussion and even battle. It was unsurprising, therefore, to see that unique Russian nexus of external aggression, internal repression, cyber-crime and government turn its attention to the Runet.

Russian opposition figures, political bloggers and independent media have been sporadically targeted for some time. During March and April 2011, however, intermittent cyber waves swelled into a typhoon of Distributed Denial of Service Attacks (DDoS). (DDoS attacks come from hundreds, maybe thousands of computers herded without their owners' knowledge into a botnet. Upon command of the so-called botherder, each computer in the botnet blasts requests at the target website until it is overwhelmed and unable to perform its intended function.)

In March and April 2011, massive DDoS attacks were directed at LiveJournal and Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper that covers political and social affairs. It is best known for its murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down in the elevator of her apartment building as she was about to file a story on Russian security forces' misconduct in Chechnya.

Novaya Gazeta's project at the time of the spring 2011 attack was to launch "Online Parliament of Runet." The idea was to crowd-source nominations and then conduct "elections" for a parallel online Duma. Elected members would then blog about issues that, in their view, the government wants to avoid.

During the same period, Boris Nemtsov, former governor of Nizhny Novgorod and People's Freedom Party leader, had planned to publish a new report, "Putin. Corruption," on LiveJournal.

"DDoS-attacks, hacking blogs and e-mails-it's their old, common business," commented Anton Nosik, social media observer and a director at Live Journal's parent company, on snob.ru. "At first glance," he continued, "just look whom our elusive and omnipresent cyber crime targeted over the years and then the main principle of this list will be clear. We will see in it web sites of Georgian and Estonian government agencies, servers of Komersant and Gazeta.ru and opposition blogs."

"Hardly anyone could have done this other than the security services," said Nemtsov. The spring cyber typhoon was a warning signal sent to Russia's Internet generation that the Runet is carefully observed, precisely because, as Nemtsov said, it had become "truly a territory of freedom and this is a preparation for parliamentary and presidential elections."

Ironically, the Russian authorities had a hand in developing social media as the fifth estate. Due to media censorship and intimidation, the Runet became the vehicle for domestic opposition and emerging political figures. For example, Alexey Navalniy, the most recognized leader of the recent anti-Putin demonstrations, never had opportunities to appear on television. He literally emerged as a public figure from his anti-corruption blog on LiveJournal and his Rospil.info web site that monitors state procurement.

As predicted, apparently the same cyber forces were at work for the December 4 State Duma elections. DDoS attacks brought down LiveJournal and Novaya Gazeta, news portals slon.ru and Zaks.ru, New Times and Kommersant newspapers, Bolshoi Gorod magazine, Echo Moskvy radio and many more.

In a similar vein, right after the Duma election, Pavel Durov, Vkontakte General Director, received an official letter from the FSB-successor to the infamous KGB-to shut down particular Vkontakte political groups. Durov not only rejected the request, but he scanned the letter and posted it on the Internet.

Remarkable is that, despite publicly expressed concerns from the security forces, an apparent trial run and a significant DDoS effort on election day, the perpetrators failed to understand the nature of the Internet. One could read on one site that another site had been attacked. And, incidentally, one could view there an amateur video of ballot stuffing at some or other polling station.

The resultant mass demonstrations sent the regime reeling. Putin stonewalled opposition demands for a new election, conceding only that web cameras should be installed in 90,000 polling stations for the March 4 presidential elections.

Cyber attacks did not materialize during the presidential election, but some of the 90,000 webcams displayed fraudsters at work. If you missed the live stream on webvybory2012.ru, the images were flashed around the Internet in the form of thousands of videos, pictures, blogs, micro blogs and updates discussing, debating and condemning the March 4 process. The Runet really became the Russian political arena, the dawn of fifth estate in Russian politics.

A combination of real votes, traditional media control and old-fashioned electoral shenanigans was sufficient to elect Vladimir Putin as Russia's next president. The presidency to which he has been elected, however, will be very different from his two earlier ones, not least because politics are shifting to the Runet.

The cyber criminals and youth hacktivists were apparently called off on this occasion. But just as sure as political opponents will continue to express themselves and organize on the Runet, particularly on social media sites, we can expect to see their cyber foes back in action. Moreover, it would be foolish to think that the same people who designed Russia's cyber-attack on Georgia and its own domestic opposition are not busy building trap doors and laying logic bombs in the information systems of Russia's prospective enemies.

Khatuna Mshvidobadze is Senior Associate at the Georgian Security Analysis Center in Tbilisi, Georgia, and Academic Fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Arlington, Virginia.

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