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Internet Opens Russia for Democracy Movement

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James Brooke

Russia’s protest movement grew and got organized with speed that startled many in the political establishment. Russia’s uncensored Internet allows people to communicate, coordinate and raise money for rallies, all through their computers.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is running for president in elections March 4. His campaign website photos show him skiing, skating and fighting in a judo match.

But on the Internet, one satire rips off the latest Sasha Baron Cohen’s comedy, The Dictator. It has Russia’s leader winning a running presidential race by shooting his opponents with a starting pistol.

Or in this takeoff on the film Titanic, he and Boris Gryzlov, former speaker of Duma are heading toward a massive iceberg.

In another video, psychiatrists in white coats dance in a chorus line singing, Our Madhouse Vote for Putin. Watched by over one-million people, it won a recent YouTube music-video contest in Russia.

Online videos like these are shaping the generation that protests Putin's plan to rule Russia for another decade. With 50 million Russians now online, many Russians have stopped watching news programs on state-controlled TV.

Sam Greene, an American political scientist in Moscow, said Russia's Internet is forcing TV news coverage to change, or die.

"They then had to cover the December 24 as an anti-Putin protest," said Greene. "That has not been on television ever. And it was the combination of the fact that the Internet would have put the information out there, and did put that information out there. And there were 80, 100, 120,000 people on the streets, which is hard to miss. That forced television into this corner."

In cyberspace, Putin's backers counterattacked with his interactive campaign website. But, once again, his opponents proved to be quicker on the web.

They immediately posted suggestions. "Please leave politics. It is obvious that power is a narcotic," read one from Andrei Antonenko.

Anti-Putin comments like Antonenko's immediately rose to the top of the online ranking. Campaign workers took them down, but screen grabs had already gone viral.

"They should have seen it coming," says Greene, who also directs a New Media program in the Russian capital. "They did not."

Oddly, Putin's party, United Russia, appears nowhere on his campaign website. That is because Internet blogger Alexey Navalny ruined the party brand by saddling it online with an unshakeable label, "the party of swindlers and thieves."

While Russia's government loses the Internet information war, the opposition now uses the Internet to raise money for rallies. Alexei Kozlov, for example, raised $130,000 in online contributions from about 5,000 contributors. He says Yandex Money, the payment system, limits payments to $500, which means no one can charge that one or two oligarchs are bankrolling the protests.

Also, Yandex Money only works inside Russia. He says no one can accuse the movement of being funded by the United States.

Finally, the opposition uses Facebook and other social network sites to inform people about protests. Two weeks before a mass march is to go through central Moscow, the city has no political graffiti, and no political posters. But if protest planners hit their targets, the February 4 march will be another Internet-driven flash mob of 100,000 people.

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