Yesterday, on March 4, Vladimir Putin signed an executive order [ru] regarding the creation of a government petitions online platform, which will allow Russian citizens to create and vote on various policy issues at the federal, regional, and local levels. The website, which is scheduled to go live for federal petitions in April 2013 and regional and local issues in November 2013, will be called the “Russian Public Initiative.” Putin first proposed the idea in article [ru] titled “Democracy and the Quality of Government,” one of his much-publicized presidential platform op-eds from the 2012 campaign. The March 4 executive order also marks another lost battle for Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s government, which Putin tasked with implementing the Internet-petitions concept back in May 2012, with a (missed) deadline of September that year.
The newspaper Kommersant first reported [ru] disagreements between the Kremlin and the government in early February 2013, when unnamed sources signaled that the Kremlin was displeased with Open Government Affairs Minister Mikhail Abyzov’s plans [ru] to subject all online petitions to review by expert groups formed by his own subordinates. Putin’s March 4 order effectively crowds out Abyzov, mandating the presence of Kremlin representatives in all expert review groups for federal initiatives, and entrusting preliminary review powers and website maintenance duties to the nongovernmental organization, the “Information Democracy Foundation” [ru]. That outfit is headed by Ilya Massukh, the former Deputy Minister of Communications.
When he was in Putin’s government, Massukh worked under former Minister of Communications Igor Shchegolev (who currently serves as an advisor to Putin and a member of the President's Human Rights Council, where he advocated [ru] policies contrary to Abyzov's in November 2012). Massukh resigned in early July 2012 because of political differences with Shchegolev’s replacement, Nikolai Nikiforov (who joined Medvedev’s ministerial cabinet). Immediately after quitting the government, Massukh launched a personal blog on LiveJournal, where he published [ru] a “confession,” thanking Putin, Shchegolev, and former deputy prime ministers Anton Vaino, Vyacheslav Volodin, and Sergei Sobyanin for their competence, explaining that he could not muster the same respect for Nikiforov. (Massukh’s most recent activity on LJ, which he updates roughly once a month, was on February 25, when he addressed [ru] the issue of online censorship, faulting the notorious RuNet blacklist for “unprofessionalism,” but also mocking its critics as a bunch of impetuous, “fools-rush-in” worriers.)
Throughout February, Massukh criticized the government’s Internet-petition proposal, arguing that Abyzov’s blueprint failed to implement the initiative for regional and local issues (though Putin’s May 2012 directive [ru] never specified such needs). He also took issue with the Ministry of Communications’ plans for a state tender to select a third party administrator for the Public Initiative’s website. (Massukh’s own outfit ultimately won this right by presidential fiat.) In comments to Kommersant and later Gazeta.ru, Massukh complained of the tender’s illegal preconditions (which limited access to IT organizations with at least 1,000 employees, capital assets of no less than a billion rubles, and annual profits of at least 100 million rubles). On March 4, the same day that Putin awarded administration rights to Massukh’s group, the Communications Ministry rejected on mysterious technicalities [ru] the only two applicants for the tender (Rostelekom and the Postal Service of Russia), effectively canceling its own plans.
Massukh estimates [ru] that establishing the petitions website will cost 30 million rubles, with annual maintenance expenses amounting to an additional 30-50 million rubles in salaries for moderators, attorneys, and so on. The Information Democracy Foundation says it’s funded by various IT companies, though it refuses to reveal which, and will rely entirely on its own resources to finance the petitions website. (Strangely, neither the Communications Ministry nor the Kremlin planned to finance the Public Initiative with money from the federal budget, meaning that both plans expected some form of NGO voluntarism.) Massukh’s organization was founded just last October, but his ties to the Kremlin and the business community (he used to work for IBM [ru], providing software to help administer state pensions) have apparently attracted it considerable wealth. (He told Vedomosti newspaper that his foundation is preparing to spend 150 million rubles [ru] on Internet projects in 2013 alone.) The group’s first public session [ru] in mid-October last year even drew Alena Popova, a semi-oppositionist, “IT-innovations” guru known for netizen activism and eGov entrepreneurialism. (When Popova tweeted about her attendance at the event, she received a less than impressed reaction [ru] from also semi-oppositionist photoblogger Dmitri Ternovsky.)
With Putin having intervened again in the affairs of the government’s ministers, the public is left to wonder if Medvedev’s declining influence might soon pass a critical threshold. Does the Kremlin’s usurpation of ministerial powers forebode Medvedev’s ouster? Can Medvedev survive as a national political figure, if his office is completely gutted of all real authority? And what of the Internet-petitions web portal? Yesterday’s presidential order provides for two levels of filtration against “illegitimate” citizen proposals. The text bans petitions if they’re redundant with existing petitions, unconstitutional, profane, extremist, or silent about actual policy suggestions. The Information Democracy Foundation gets a first pass at removing any offending proposals (before they’re even voted upon), and expert groups composed of state officials and industry figures will pass judgment on all petitions that collect the minimum support (100 thousand votes for national initiatives, or 5% of local communities for lower level issues).
When the dust settles, average Russians will surely be curious to see how these new Internet-petitions work. Given the multiple filters in place, one doubts that any “Putin Must Go” initiatives will reach the parliament floor. More likely, perhaps, is that the Kremlin will gain a new means of attributing popular support to policies already in the works. After all, laws tightening regulations on foreign-funded political organizations, American adoptions, and subversive Internet content all enjoy the endorsement of large groups active online (if not, on some occasions [ru], a majority of the country). Control over a process that taps those stores of support is something worth fighting for. Just ask Ilya Massukh and his honorable entourage from Red Square.