Alexey Navalny is a Russian lawyer, former member of the board of “Yabloko” political party, and a blogger who became popular due to his online anti-corruption investigations. Time Magazine called Navalny “Russia's Erin Brockovich” [ENG]; Russian newspaper Vedomosti named him Man of the Year in 2009 [RUS]. Currently, Navalny is a World Fellow at Yale University [ENG]. On Oct. 19, 2010, he participated in the presentation of a Russian blogosphere report published by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and Morningside Analytics: “Public Discourse in the Russian Blogosphere: Mapping RuNet Politics and Mobilization” [ENG]. GV's RuNet Echo talked to Navalny after the presentation, which took place at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington, D.C.
Alexey, you participated in the presentation of the “Mapping the Russian Blogosphere” report. Did you find anything interesting for you in this research? Can it be helpful for Russian bloggers?
First of all, this Harvard research is useful because it’s a Harvard research. Before that, we saw several different researches depicting the Russian blogosphere. But all these researches were done by organizations that were participants of the market – they had their own blog platforms or something similar. These reports were very interesting, but you couldn’t trust them. Now, we have something from an organization with a solid reputation. This is why I think this is the first report one can fully trust, which is a big deal for the Russian blogosphere. Second, it’s amazing how technical tools could observe that the blogosphere is actually very political, and that the bloggers who write about politics are mainstream and not marginals. What is even more interesting is that marginals are those who call all the others “marginals.” It has technically been proved that all these petty criminals like “Nashi”, “Molodaya Gvardia” – they’re all among the so-called “instrumental” part, the paid bloggers. Besides that, they didn’t manage to create a certain galaxy on the star map of the blogosphere. They’re evidently a purely technological solution of the Kremlin, which failed to succeed. And this is very important in terms of future work. Because it’s been understood that all attempts to buy out several people to announce a certain idea – this just doesn’t work in the Russian blogosphere. It successfully fights any solutions like that.
But there’s another question, though. We now have a thorough technical description of what's happening in the blogosphere, but we need to interpret and seriously study it. But we don’t know how, so far. At least, we know where to start.
Some time ago, as a democratic activist, you were accused of nationalism. One of the conclusions of the research talks about a high level of polarization between nationalistic and democratic groups of bloggers. How would you comment on this?
For me it is a technical proof of my ideas. I said that the division between democrats and nationalists is in a certain sense artificial – it is a result of the general political nonsense that came to us from the early 90s, when “democrats” were fighting “communists-nationalists.” This simplified political science doesn’t work anymore. And now, the blogosphere represents the actual political situation. There’s a systematic opposition that exists in the Duma, but in fact it represents a minimum of political views in the society. And there’s an informal part that is 10 times bigger. Altogether, the opposition is against the government and censorship, violence, corrupted police, etc. This is why there’s a cloud that is against, it’s critical. In this cloud, I can see that “nationalists” and “democrats” co-exist comfortably, although criticizing each other. They’re moving in the same direction.
To which cluster, “nationalistic” or “democratic”, is your blog-identity closer?
Harvard's experts have painted the map in different colors in accordance with their understanding of the Russian politics. I can see that what Harvard has painted yellow and green is actually a single cloud. This is why all this political science – these are nationalists, and these are democrats – is conditional. I can see that there is a cloud. I’m somewhere in the center of this cloud. And I can see that both green and yellow dots – they work together with me. This is why if you don't put labels on people – e.g., nationalists, democrats or liberals – it will be much more positive.
It turns out that all the most active bloggers, like you and Marina Litvinovich – they all came out of the democratic movement, and participated in the offline structures of the democratic movement and had to leave… how would you explain this common denominator?
Well, I can’t speak for Litvinovich, but the map shows that I’m not a marginal of the democratic movement. Quite the opposite, the democratic movement in the state it exists now is marginal, because the real democratic movement exists outside of those three clowns who consider themselves a democratic movement. I would say – they’re marginals.
Alexey, you said that you didn’t want to use an online platform to coordinate offline political actions. Why is that? Do you think that RuNet can’t have an impact on the real political life?
I wouldn’t say that. I just think that there’s no strict division between online and offline anymore. What I organize online has consequences offline. We organize a campaign online – a real official gets fired or a criminal case starts. There are no parallel worlds. I think we should not use the blogosphere to create offline structures. We shouldn’t spend our energy organizing people on the Internet… This doesn’t make sense. We shouldn’t use the 21st century for something from the 19th century. There’s no antagonism between the online and the offline.
So, the assertion that the Internet discusses but doesn’t decide is untrue?
It’s been untrue for 10 years already. It’s evident that Internet matters.
Not so long ago you were elected a virtual mayor of Moscow. What does it mean for you?
Well, that’s nice to think about that. Thanks to all who voted for me. But I’m pretty ironic about it because the keyword here is “virtual.” Although these “elections” showed two important things. First, more than 60,000 people took part in them. This shows that people aren’t happy about not having a place where to vote. This is why a lot of bloggers took seriously the idea of Internet-voting and are seriously discussing it. Second, it was incredible that I won with such a big share of votes and that I took over many opposition politicians, while all the other candidates took 2-3 percent, maximum 6 percent.
It means that the government has lost the moral and intellectual competition on the Internet, which is pretty big – almost 37 million users. For the government there’s no online platform where it is trusted. There are websites like Kommersant, Vedomosti, Echo Moskvy. Even if we take non-liberal websites, conservative, entertainment, neutral, whatever – any voting would lead to the victory of what we call “the opposition.” And the government, although it invested a lot of money, has lost this work. And as the Internet penetrates, this division will get bigger. Internet is the main threat to the stability of the government in Russia.
When will be the turning point, when will the virtual election have its real-life consequences? Can a virtual audience play an important role in the 2012 presidential election, so that the result of such an election wouldn’t be only virtual?
I anticipate that within the next two years, the number of people getting their information from the Internet will reach 50 million and we will see the quality change. Internet will become much more influential and the role of public opinion generated online will increase. However, I think it won’t have a decisive impact on the results of the 2012 election. It will affect the presidential campaign, the message of the campaign, the discussion. Actually, Internet for the government is some kind of a focus group. The Russian government is very populist. They just like to do what the people want. I mean, if it doesn’t contradict their own interests. The political agenda, however, will be tested on the Internet. And this is why it will have an influence – but no direct impact. Putin will successfully become Russia's president.
We have a situation when one leader, Medvedev, plays with the Internet and the other one, Putin, ignores it. How will it affect the situation?
Well, the fact that Medvedev plays with the Internet is pretty ironic. He looks like a kid who is playing with his iPhone, iPad and tamagotchi. I wouldn’t say that this fact helps his image.
What is your blog for you? Is it a political or information platform, a tool for a fight with something?
The blog is everything. In the contemporary Russian conditions, a blog is a tool for collection and distribution of information, organization of civil campaigns and political pressure. Blogs do work. A blog is personal and interactive mass media. I can find specialists in any field, I can find people ready to write thousands complaints to the anti-monopoly committee. It’s not purely online. Online and offline are connected through the blog.
How do you explain the success of your blog in becoming an effective platform that attracts a wide audience?
I think that my blog is different from others and has the people’s support. I am very grateful to all who support it because I offer some practical steps of pressuring the government. My idea is not simply to say: “Look, officer Ivan Petrov is a crook.” I'd rather say: “See, this official, Ivan Petrov, is a crook because he did this and that; let's all make a few steps that will put him in prison.” This is my basic concept. I suggest specific solutions. They may be more or less effective. We can win. We can lose. Nevertheless, I do not want just to cry out. I engage people in direct confrontation. That is how we push the government. But I'm trying to do this in an entertaining format. I'm trying to prove to everyone that the fight against the regime is fun.
At the same time, one of the stories that made your blog famous is the investigation of corruption in VTB bank [RUS] and attorney Magnitski’s death [ENG]. Do you think that such investigations could be possible without a blog and what was the blog’s role?
Without a blog, it could have been done in America because the investigation of corruption in the largest bank would attract the attention of the traditional media. In Russia, it could be done only via a blog. On my blog, I announced that there were some disturbing facts that I had been investigating. With the help of the blog, I put together other shareholders of VTB Bank who wrote the complaint with me. With its help, I found leasing specialists, experts in drilling rigs, etc. Via the blog, I found other insiders who told me about what is happening now with these drilling rigs. In other words, I fully coordinated the campaign via my blog. The blog gives me the information and then I play the role of a mediator between the investigation on the Internet and specific individuals. I formalize all the information that I found in the form of complaints and in court appeals.
How successful was the outcome of this investigation?
Well, how do you measure success? If I am asked if I was able to put Kostin, a head of the VTB Bank, in jail, the answer is “no” and apparently it will be extremely difficult to do it in the near future simply due to the political situation; because Kostin is actually the state. And he does not want to be in jail. But yet it was the most discussed issue at the meeting of shareholders of the VTB Bank. It is one of the most painful issues that exist in the VTB Bank and it is really afraid of this situation. We forced them at least to do something with the drilling rigs and they started moving. I am confident that this investigation made corruption in the bank more subtle and complicated. They probably steal 40 percent instead of 70 percent. They continue to steal but at least they are afraid to do it openly.
And in the story of Magnitski, were you able to move it forward?
In the case of Magnitski, I didn't play a major role. I was just using the blog to inform people about what was happening there. This situation was outrageous. We remember that Medvedev and others said that it required investigation but things are still the same. In this case, interests of FSB are involved. Police, policymakers and judges are responsible for the fact that the man was tortured and killed. For them it's not just an anti-corruption investigation, it is a particular criminal case because of which they must all be in prison. And here we have huge resistance from the government and law enforcement agencies, but nevertheless my blog and other blogs that cover this matter contribute to the fact that the case of Magnitski is well-known.
If we talk about the future of struggle against corruption, how the role of blogs in this context should develop? How blogs can become more effective?
You can do now anything through your blog. The last successful example is the fight against fake tenders in the IT sector [ENG]. That can be replicated … It should not be blogs or Internet solutions but people who are willing to do it. If there is a person who wants to fight corruption, he or she will easy find supporters and experts. Blogs and the Internet are now a very convenient environment that can be used for the real fight against corruption in every area.
Many say that there is no censorship per se on RuNet and the main control is conducted primarily through threats to bloggers. Organizations such as the VTB Bank are powerful and your investigation was a threat to their commercial interests. Were there any concerns about the safety and immediate threats to you?
I've never received threats related to my professional activites. Although, from time to time, there are some strange calls or strange cars out there that follow me. It doesn't happen often and I never got immediate threats. I think that the whole threat issue is exaggerated. Of course, they can without any problems knock down a specific person in 3 seconds, including me, but someone will resist longer while someone resists less, someone will break sooner and someone later, but there's no need to exaggerate their ability to put pressure on everyone. When they see that an organized group protests against them, they are most likely to yield.
Do you think that a scenario of crackdown on Internet by Russian authorities is possible?
I see that they [the authorities – G.V.] consider this possibility and perhaps there are some technical solutions, such as the Chinese experience. However, I think that moving in this direction will cause very strong resistance and implications for the government will be much more dangerous than the free Internet.
Alexey, what are your future plans? Are you going to modify your blog or use other platforms? Do you have any creative plans for fighting corruption?
I and my colleagues look into new technical solutions that already exist in the West. For instance, “Ushahidi” platform that I want to use for the project “Ushahidi on potholes” [RUS] and a couple more projects to fight corruption. We carefully examine what has been done in other countries so we can bring to Russia ready technological solutions. In general, it is possible to invent them, but why would we waste our time if it is already invented for us, and they are willing to share it with us. Corruption is not something that is unique to Russia. Most countries also have corruption as high as in Russia. But some people fight corruption more successfuly than others. Anyway, there are many successful projects. We must study them, bring them to Russia and replicate.
And what is the idea of the project “Ushahidi on potholes?”
The Administrative Code of Russia states that if a road has a pit over 50 centimeters deep and greater than 80 centimeters in length, it should be urgently sealed and that a specific official who is responsible for this road – and there is a responsible official for every road – should be penalized for doing nothing about it. So we will try to use this article of the Administrative Code to organize activists for sealing the hole in front of your home and punishing officials who are responsible for not fixing it earlier. According to the legislation, they have no ability to avoid punishing the officials. We will try to do a project that will make significant troubles to the governmental officials. With the help of this project, we will also find activists who are interested in this type of actions and will make efforts to engage those activists in future projects.
The last question is a little more personal. Maintaining this type of blog probably requires a lot of time. Do you have time for anything else?
I like my blog and it’s very interesting to read the comments and chat with people. You need to understand that, in a sense, you become a slave to your blog. First, people are constantly demanding something from you – that you should write this and avoid writing that… If I write something about my personal life, then I always see comments: “You do not have the right to use your blog to write about such nonsense as your personal life, let's write about corruption and the fight against it.” And the blog is transformed into something bigger than just your property.
Second, there are about 50,000 people who read my blog daily. If I don't write, three days later the blog will be read by 20,000 people. In a week, the number of readers will be 2,000 people and, two weeks later, only your mother will go and see if you wrote something. Therefore, if you want to have a popular blog, you have to constantly write and say something. The good thing about the Internet is that the audience is very mobile and no one will wait for Navalny if Navalny won’t write anything for a month. These are the laws of the genre.