Erstellt am: 23. 10. 2012 - 12:23 Uhr
Russia: In the Cloud, A Shadow Parliament Rises
Those tuning in to late night programming on the online Russian television station "Dozhd" these past few weeks could be forgiven for thinking they'd gone to bed in the wrong country. For they were witnessing something entirely unusual in Vladimir Putin's Russia - namely, debates. Political debates.
Not the Kremlin-scripted sort of affairs where the main candidate or ruling party refuses to participate. But real debates. Messy debates. Debates full of liberals, nationalists, eco-warriors, feminists, businessman, and activists. Exchanges that were full of good performances, awful ones, arguments, awkward pauses, eloquence, humor, winners, losers, surprises, and enough problematic Skype calls to think that the service has a way to go before it replaces the lowly yet trusty telephone. ("Vladivostok looks like fucking Mars," quipped Twitter follower @dobriykaban after witnessing the Skype delays).
In short, in what passes for Russian politics these days, this was something... new.
And they were, of course, happening online. The candidates – over 200 in all – were vying for seats to the so-called Opposition Coordination Council, a new 45-member Internet-elected 'shadow parliament' intended to draw contrast with the rigged federal elections of the past year.
The elections are the brainchild of Leonid Volkov, a 33-year old city councilman and IT specialist from Yekaterinburg who worked with programmers to build an online election infrastructure over the past several months.
Volkov knows about the limits of traditional ballot box in Russia. During the flawed December elections of 2011, Volkov saw his attempts to join the higher Sverdlovsk oblast council derailed when courts stripped him of the required signatures to get on the ballot. Signatures ruled fraudulent by the court included those of friends and family members.
Critics and Pressure
But the 0s and 1s of the digital world haven't proved much easier: In the Urals, the election committee's local Chelyabinsk office was shut down by police amid accusations of fomenting "extremism".
Volkov and the other members of the election's Organizing Committee have come under fire for blocking the candidacy of 70 + members of MMM, a corporation notorious for running a $10 billion ponzi scheme in the 1990s. "They were paid by the Kremlin to disrupt the elections. We had no choice," Volkov told me.
Russian prosecutors, in turn, have taken an interest – hinting they may charge Volkov and other election organizers with stealing the $300 registration fees of the MMM members. "We've offered the money back, almost no one has claimed it, and we haven't spent it either" notes Volkov. "It's the kind of stupid situation that can only happen here."
If that weren't enough, weekend voting was disrupted by a massive Denial-of-Service Attack (DDOS) that crippled the site for a day before Volkov's team relaunched the service. Neither he or his team have slept much.
The hard knocks nature of politicking online may surprise, but it's fueled by the growth of broadband Internet and Russians' passion for social media.
Last year, Russia took over the top spot as the largest Internet consumer in Europe. On 'Runet', the nickname for the Russian language portion of the Internet, Russians spending more time on social media sites than anyone else in the world. Most of the growth has come in the regions, and much of it in smaller cities under 100,000.
And many want to get things done. Faced with breakdown in public services or dissatisfaction with government accountability, a form of horizontal civic activism is challenging the vertical order. Crowdmaps track wildfires and road repair, blogs crowdsource investigations into corruption and political chicanery, and Internet memes and viral videos push regional causes into the national consciousness.
Leonid Volkov has even called for a Russian form of "Cloud Democracy", an online Russia were virtual mayors lead issues rather than cities. He acknowledges the Council's election as a "first, small step" in that direction.
Following three days of voting, election winners were announced Monday night online.
Familiar faces from last year's protest movement - such as the anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, the writer Dmitri Bykov, and the socialite-journalist Ksenia Sobchak – topped the list. But there were a few new faces too, such as Lyubov Sobol, a previously unknown member of Navalny's anti-corruption team. Part blocks within the body also brought with it new faces.
Some will undoubtedly question the legitimacy of an opposition shadow parliament elected by the online electorate alone – just over 80,000 Russians cast their votes.
But supporters of the election point out that's 80,000 where one voice is equal to one vote. As, Roman, 23, a mathematics graduate from Moscow State University, who cast his ballot over the weekend told me. "Fair elections were the next logical step. We've proven we can do what the government can't."