The objectivity of pro-Western (for lack of a better denominative) reports on the recent street and Internet activism in Russia must be questioned in a number of areas.
Depictions by U.S. and other English-language media of a Stalinesque Putin holding freedom of expression by the neck and strangling it simply do not hold when we consider the lively and unrestrained debates on the Russian Net. What is there that a Russian citizen today cannot write in a blog or online forum? Visions of the KGB (now FSB) breaking into your living room to arrest you over a LiveJournal comment, as sometimes allusively painted by the Western press, simply do not match the reality.
Reports of a criminal investigation launched against Moscow-based blogger Arkady Babchenko over an online post seem not only an isolated case, but also the result of a personal dispute.
Aside from isolated cases like this one, which are often reported by Western media as evidence of large-scale censorship, the Russian government has not appeared to have the technical means, discipline, or will — or all three — to regulate online speech as systematically and efficiently as China’s Internet police does, for example. Rather, acts of repression have been much more random, selective, and minor if compared with some authoritarian states. Judging by how much prominent blogger and activist Alexey Navalny has been able to say on his LiveJournal and Twitter pages, unimpeded, or more broadly speaking, how a crucial role online social media has played in unmasking electoral fraud and rallying protesters, it is clear that free speech on the Russian Net is alive and well.
Clearly, if the government truly wanted to control speech on the Internet, it would have introduced restrictive legislation a long time ago. So far, there is no sign of this.
Similarly, the arrests of street demonstrators, widely reported by the media as evidence of a Soviet-style crackdown on dissent, take on a slightly different tone than Goulag-like repression if we consider a few factors rarely mentioned in Western press reports. While no doubt traumatized by the experience, most of the people arrested were detained for just a few hours. Navalny himself, presented by the news media to be one of the most vocal and biggest “threats” to the government, was released after paying a 1,000 rubles ($34) fine.
It is also interesting to look at whom gets arrested and for what reasons. In the city of Kazan, police reportedly detained over 100 protesters, mostly in their early 20s, for failure to disperse. It might be worth asking here if the Kremlin really feels “threatened” by these youths, and is arresting them out of a real fear of escalating discontentment across the country, as many American media have depicted Putin and his policies .
I am more tempted to believe that the much-criticized clampdowns on pro-democracy supporters are more a show of force for domestic consumption, perhaps as a method of dissuasion, than a genuine fear of “the power of the people,” “the destabilizing foreign elements aiding them,” and Western-style Democracy uprooting anything Russian and taking its place on Russia’s territory.
Such views of a Putin — and by extension Russia — as authoritarian because scared of losing power over his/its people are a recurrent theme in American and foreign media reports. In fact, recent commentaries by major media outlets on third-term Putin seem to rejoice in predicting a weakened president: “Russia’s presidency: The beginning of the end of Putin,” clamors The Economist; while University of Virginia Professor Allen C. Lynch also shows doubt in Putin’s abilities by asking in a commentary for CNN.com, “Will Putin be able to make Russia great?”
This article is the sixth in a series on Russia’s presidential election, popular street protests, and Putin’s new presidency.