нтвлжет – #ntvlies – is the latest online rallying point for the persistent opposition to Russian President-elect Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. The immediate object of the protest is the NTV television documentary Anatomy of a Protest, a “pseudodocumentary,” writes the New York Times, with “all the familiar earmarks of a hatchet job against opponents of the Kremlin.” On a deeper level, #нтвлжет signifies that some segment of the Russian people is unwilling to leave behind Putin’s tragicomic Kremlin re-entry. Their web-based protest against the Gazprom-owned television channel marks Russia’s transition from broadcast to online politics.
In a September 2011 Washington Post article, American author Ralph Peters remarks that “Putin’s genius… begins with an insight into governance that eluded the ‘great’ dictators of the last century: you need control only public life, not personal lives. Putin grasped that human beings need to let off steam about the world’s ills, and that letting them do so around the kitchen table, over a bottle of vodka, does no harm to the state. His tacit compact with the Russian people is that they may do or say what they like behind closed doors, as long as they don’t take it into the streets.”
At the time, it appeared that the siloviki understood that the Runet – as the Russian segment of the Internet is called – is closer to being a virtual street than a virtual kitchen table. People can let off steam on social media and blog sites, but they can also persuade, multiply and organize.
“Uncontrolled usage [of the Runet],” FSB Cyber Center Chief Alexander Andreyechkin warned last spring, “may lead to a massive threat to Russia’s security.”
The Kremlin had one eye on social media-driven events abroad. “Look at the situation that has unfolded in the Middle East and the Arab world,” said President Dmitry Medvedev. “This is the kind of scenario that they were preparing for us, and now they will be trying even harder to bring it about.”
But the Kremlin’s other eye was focused on upcoming Duma and presidential elections. In what could only have been a trial run before the elections, during March and April 2011, the now-familiar crew of youth group and criminal hackers launched a series of DDoS attacks on the LiveJournal blog site, Novaya Gazeta website and Rospil.info, a website run by anti-corruption blogger Aleksey Navalny.
(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.)
“Hardly anyone could have done this other than the security services,” said People’s Freedom Party leader Boris Nemtsov. The spring 2011 attacks were warnings to Russian Internet denizens that the Runet is carefully observed.
On the occasion of the December 4 Duma elections, as expected, DDoS attacks were aimed at about 30 websites more or less identified with the opposition. Among the attacked sites were LiveJournal, news portals slon.ru, Zaks.ru, Novaya Gazeta, New Times and Kommersant newspapers, Bolshoi Gorod magazine, Echo Moskvy radio and TV channel Dozhd. Election watchdog Golos also came under cyber fire, particularly its Kartanarusheniy.ru, a project to display election violations on an interactive map.
However, the gravity of the matter expressed by the siloviki a few months earlier was not reflected in the December efforts to suppress online opposition. Some sites were taken down, but one could read about it on other sites. And while browsing the available sites, one might have found an amateur video of ballot box stuffing at some or other polling station. One got the impression that the siloviki and their hacker friends did not comprehend the extent of the Runet challenge.
Having successfully employed social media to reveal election irregularities, the wired opposition then used the same means to bring hundreds of thousands of people into the streets of cities across Russia.
Putin appeared dazed. Ten days after the election, during his annual television call-in program, he ridiculed the white ribbons worn by street protestors. "Frankly,” he said, “when I looked at the television screen and saw something hanging from someone's chest, honestly, it's indecent, but I decided that it was propaganda to fight Aids – that they had hung, pardon, a condom."
Meanwhile, looking forward to the March 4 presidential election, the Putin camp decided to join the Internet era with a slick “Vladimir Putin 2012” website. The home page featured a vigorous-looking sports shirt-clad Putin against a snowy backdrop. The content included an essay about why he should be Russia’s president.
However, the Putin people apparently mistook a computer screen for a television screen. Television broadcasts one way; on the Internet, people talk back. The only thing they could think to do with the torrent of negative comments was to delete them.
Nonetheless, the vast majority of the Russian people still gets most of its information from television, and Putin handily won the March 4 election, (from which any serious opposition had been carefully excised months earlier.
In March, DDoS attacks – at least on an appreciable scale – did not materialize. Perhaps, buoyed by favorable pre-election polls, the Putin people decided that good, old-fashioned ballot box stuffing would suffice. Perhaps embarrassed by the December 4 DDoS debacle, they decided to reconsider and revamp their cyber capabilities. Whatever the reason, it is interesting that the perpetrators – who some continue to believe are spontaneous cyber patriots – could be called off so efficiently with the snap of someone’s fingers.
They will be back. But, for now, the wired opposition persists – #нтвлжет is just their latest iteration. And the system persists with broadcast politics like the Anatomy of a Protest documentary. However, there is a new factor. Like Putin’s website, NTV’s program became interactive – not directly, of course, but online comments about the television program and online protest organization rendered NTV, for a brief period, interactive.
With half of Russians already connected to the Internet, and 10,000 people joining each day, politics is moving online. That alone will make Vladimir Vladimirovich’s third presidency very different from his first two.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 95, published 9 April 2012.