This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011.
With less than a week to go until Russia's parliamentary elections, the Golos [ru] election monitoring association has been experiencing unprecedented pressure, including a break-in by an NTV television team, accusatory articles in major newspapers, and a call for the organization's closure signed by three parliament deputies.
The main reason for this pressure? Its popular crowdsourced Election Violation Map (kartanarusheniy.ru), developed by Golos.org together with gazeta.ru.
“You're Surkov's Propaganda”
On November 26, 2011, newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta published [ru] an almost stereotypical accusatory article about Golos’ associations. The article implied that Golos is a “fifth column” and an agent of United States foreign policy:
Среди партнеров “Голоса” называют такие структуры из США, как Агентство по международному развитию (USAID), Национальный фонд за демократию (NED), Национальный демократический институт (NDI). Более того, в организации не скрывают, что существуют на деньги, приходящие из-за рубежа.
On November 28, while Golos held a press conference in the Independent Press Center, a team of NTV journalists broke into the organisation's offices expecting to shoot footage that would be later used in an accusatory TV programme. Similar cases have previously involved independent politician Yevgeniy Roizman, former Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov [ru], Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko [ru] and many others.
Grigoriy Melkonyants, deputy chairman of Golos, managed to counter the aggressive (and still anonymous as their names are not disclosed) television journalists. He recorded everything and used the Internet-born technique of trolling (repeating the same slogan continuously and almost zombie-like to confuse one's opponent) saying “You're Surkov's propaganda” [Vladislav Surkov - first deputy chief of the presidential staff responsible for handling political issues].
The same day YouTube user videogolos uploaded the video [ru] of the break-in (~301,000 views so far):
это просто гениальный какой-то пример “встречного телевидения”. Снимая, видимо, на телефон или на любительскую камеру с руки, активист “Голоса” замучил юного корреспондента НТВ. Одной этой съемкой и мантрой “вы – сурковская пропаганда” этот великий человек мало того, что развалил атаку на “Голос”, но он еще и создал уникальный прецедент борьбы “альтернативного телевидения” с “традиционным”…
True test of the Opposition
The attack on Golos would not be complete if no one had called for the organization's closure. Three deputies have written an appeal to the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor's Office, to investigate the activity of the foreign-sponsored election monitoring NGO.
Surprisingly, only one deputy, Andrey Nazarov, belonged to the dominating United Russia party, whilst Anton Belyakov came from A Just Russia, and Maksim Rohmistrov from LDPR.
The appearance of other parties to support the call, parties which are usually the object of violations themselves, was considered by many as a proof of the tight control exercised by the Kremlin over political parties, even those that are considered to be opposing.
Popular journalist Oleg Kashin wrote [ru] that the reaction towards this letter was “the true test of the ‘oppositionness'” of those parties:
чтобы доказать, что они действительно хотят всерьез бороться за голоса, им нужно всего лишь исключить Белякова и Рохмистрова из фракций.
The reaction of the two Opposition parties was quite different. Within 24 hours of the revelation of the conflict, all leaders of A Just Russia party had condemned Belyakov's support of the call for closure (although no one has dismissed Belyakov yet). LDPR simply ignored the case.
Gennadiy Gudkov, deputy chairman of A Just Russia's faction in Duma, tweeted [ru]:
Заявляю,подпись Белякова-его личная инициатива,идущая против линии партии(см.мое выступл.от 18.11 от фракции).Мы поддерж.все общ.орг-ции>
Disappearing banner and the “Streisand effect”
Early on 30 November, bloggers noticed that gazeta.ru, the partner of the Golos association on its Violation Map, had removed a banner promoting the map project from its website.
Alexander Kynev, an election expert, wrote [ru]:
Думаю она – карта нарушений – и есть главный объект движухи. Им нужно уничтожить канал аккумулирования информации о нарушениях. Так что объем давления можете представить
Mikhail Kotov, editor in chief of Gazeta.ru, and one of the creators of the Violation Map, explained [ru] away the removal of the banner with commercial reasons:
сейчас такой период, это коммерческое место стало востребовано коммерческой рекламой. Но с «Голосом» мы по-прежнему партнеры.
The political undercurrent of the decision to remove the banner surfaced very quickly. Roman Badanin, Gazeta.ru deputy chief editor, resigned [ru] right after Kotov's interview, explaining that the Violation Map was among those things he had curated personally. After it became evident that the Violation Map “no longer suited the leadership and the owners of the website”, Badanin said to lenta.ru [ru], it would have been “cowardice” to continue the work.
It is important to note that two days earlier, Grigoriy Okhotin, editor in chief of inosmi.ru, a portal that translates foreign articles about Russia into Russian, resigned after RIA Novosti (the owner of inosmi.ru) asked him to avoid political and negative topics. RIA Novosti in return has filed a lawsuit against Okhotin.
Again, the ease of interconnections and alliances enabled by networked technology, prove that even the loss of a main media partner is not a disastrous failure. Almost simultaneously with Badanin's resignation, Slon.ru, a popular blog platform (~1 million unique visitors monthly), announced [ru] itself as the main media partner of kartanarusheniy.ru and placed the banner as one of its rotating ads.
It seems that Kartanarusheniy.ru induced the ‘Streisand Effect‘, whereby any attempt to contain the spread of information results in the opposite reaction. As popular blogger Oleg Kozyrev tweeted [ru]:
Почему у единороссов такие недальновидные деятели? Ведь очевидно, что теперь про Карту нарушений будет знать полстраны
A deeper trend
The Violation Map incident is just an indicator of a much deeper trend – the growing will for the need of change, exercised by free, non-falsified elections. In previous election cycles, most journalists would not have resigned and no big portal would have been brave enough to advertise election violation monitoring.
Aside from the deeper sociological undercurrent, technology plays a crucial role in all presented stories. Without trolling, Grigoriy Melkonyants would not have been able to confuse the experienced accusatory journalist from NTV. Without social networks, political party A Just Russia wouldn't have been able to denounce Belyakov's actions in calling to close Golos as fast as it did.
Finally, none of these events would actually have happened if Golos and Gazeta.ru had not united in producing the Violation Map. Golos has had an election violation database since 2008, but it never was as influential as it is now.
This suggests the success of the project relies heavily on its online mapping element (if any event gets concrete geographic coordinates it automatically gets more real and more appealing) and having a proper media partner.
This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011.