Political scientist Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center made an important observation recently about the impact of President Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea and destabilization of Ukraine. "In suffocating Ukraine," she said, "Putin is really suffocating Russia." As Putin works to undermine Ukraine, he also is smothering what remains of the independent Internet-based news media and social media amid signs that discredited old Soviet tactics such as travel restrictions are coming back.
The social media site VKontakte, boasting 100 million members, has become a Russian Facebook, popular and free-wheeling. The 29-year-old founder, Pavel Durov, until now withstood persistent Kremlin attempts to pressure him. For example, he has written that Russian authorities demanded information about the protests in Ukraine and about anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny. Durov told them to get lost. But now Durov has been forced out, and he reports that VKontakte has fallen "under the complete control" of two close allies of Putin. In his farewell posting, Durov said he was proud of what he had accomplished in seven and a half years and "part of what’s been done can’t be turned back."
That’s true. The spark of free expression that fired imaginations in Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost era and flowered in Boris Yeltsin’s roaring 1990s led to an explosion of places like VKontakte — and it will not be extinguished easily. A whole generation has lived without fear. When Yeltsin died, seven years ago last week, it was observed correctly that he had given rise to a society freer than any in Russian history.
But his successor, Putin, and Putin’s friends are working overtime to dismantle this legacy, and therein lies a second tragedy of the Ukraine coercion. In the hysteria, Putin continues to tighten the noose.
On April 22, Navalny, now an opposition leader, was hit with a court ruling that he libeled a governing party politician, which he denied and which appeared to be another in a string of politically motivated efforts to silence him. The same day, the State Duma voted to approve a bill that requires bloggers who have more than 3,000 readers to register with the state as a formal news organization and follow Russia’s restrictive press law. According to a dispatch from Post correspondent Will Englund, other legislation would make it a crime punishable by five years in prison to take part in an unsanctioned protest or to publish information that puts the government or military in an unfavorable light. Equally as disturbing, Englund described reports that Russian authorities are planning to restrict travel abroad, as was done often in Soviet times.
The rollback of democracy in Russia is not a new story. It began under Putin more than a decade ago. But it is no less painful now to see the final lights begin to flicker. Hopefully, the VKontakte generation will persist and resist. And hopefully, the United States will do more to help that generation get the information that Putin does not want it to hear.