Russian elections: 'decisive role' claimed for web activists

is Russian media analyst for BBC Monitoring.

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Russia's parliamentary election, which has resulted in a considerably reduced majority for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's party, One Russia, witnessed a clash of cultures between television and the internet. Online activists, led by blogger and anti-corruption campaigner Aleksey Navalnyy, are claiming the upper hand.

Two parallel campaigns took place ahead of polling day on 4 December.

The news bulletins on the main TV channels, which are all in one way or another under the control or influence of the state, were dominated by reports about Putin and President Dmitriy Medvedev engaged in official activities or taking part in publicity stunts such as driving combine harvesters or playing badminton together. There were many TV debates and election adverts.

The campaign ended with a TV 'zakazukha' or hatchet-job against Russia's leading independent election monitor, Golos.

In contrast, coverage of the campaign on social media was dominated by attacks on Putin and One Russia.

The most powerful platform for these attacks was YouTube. During the course of the campaign, several YouTube clips criticising or mocking One Russia or its leaders achieved viewing figures in excess of a million.

They included a video polemic posted by Navalnyy attacking One Russia's failure to keep manifesto pledges, a parody of One Russia's party congress intercut with scenes from the Hollywood blockbuster Titanic, and a song called 'Our madhouse is voting for Putin' by Yekaterinburg band Rabfak.

The most popular YouTube clip featured Putin being heckled at a martial arts contest in Moscow on 20 November, which has been watched over 3.4 million times. Other popular clips showed One Russia and its supporters meeting a hostile reception at various public events or supposedly being caught in the act of electoral skulduggery.

Navalnyy (left) is the author of the internet meme 'party of crooks and thieves', which has virtually become a synonym for One Russia among large sections of Russia's 50 million-strong internet community.

An indication of his influence is the fact that mainstream politicians from opposition parties started using his meme to attack One Russia. In two TV debates, prominent One Russia MPs were actually heard saying the phrase or some part of it themselves.

One of them memorably said that "it is better to be in a party of crooks and thieves than a party of murderers, rapists and robbers."

And after the election Sergey Mironov, leader of centre-left party A Just Russia, thanked Navalnyy on Twitter for the use of his slogan.

The rift between television and the internet was more glaring than ever as the results began to come in. While TV presenters put a brave face on One Russia's setback and cast doubts on the reliability of exit polls, internet users feverishly discussed the hacking of prominent independent websites and the large number of reports of electoral violations.

Several of them linked to videos on YouTube apparently showing ballot-box stuffing, multiple voting or blatant fraud on the part of electoral officials.

Several commentators saw the election campaign and its outcome as evidence of a paradigm shift in Russian media culture. Navalnyy exulted in what he called the defeat of the "absolute monopoly of the zombie box".

"We have learnt how to get information to millions of people without it," he wrote on 5 December. The post was entitled 'Political Botox will not help them' - a reference to rumours that Putin has recently had cosmetic surgery.

Media commentator Andrey Miroshnichenko broadly agreed with Navalnyy. He wrote that the election had shown that TV was "ceasing to be the decisive factor in the establishment and support of the political regime". He also said that Russia was currently witnessing a "confrontation between two media technologies - one monopolistic and the other diffuse".

Ekho Moskvy radio commentator Matvey Ganapolskiy said the internet had played a "decisive role in One Russia's humiliation". As recently as last year, he had been sceptical about the political potential of internet activism, remarking on how "the mountain of the internet in Russia is giving birth to a mouse of influence".

Ganapolskiy's colleague at Ekho, Aleksandr Plyushchev, a confirmed web enthusiast, was quick to pay tribute to Navalnyy's role in the campaign: "In itself, the failure of the crooks and thieves is not only down to Lesha [Navalnyy], but in a short time he really did a very, very great deal."

Internet activism in Russia may now be entering a new phase. On 5 December, Navalnyy urged his readers to join an opposition protest that evening against what he called the "total fabrication of the elections" in Moscow. He was backed by Russia's most-read blogger Rustem Adagamov, who until a few months ago had been a supporter of Medvedev.

The protest was attended by several thousand mainly young people and was the largest political demonstration of its kind in Moscow since Putin came to power in 2000. Navalnyy was among 300 people detained by police shortly afterwards.

Stephen Ennis is Russian media analyst for BBC Monitoring. 

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