Twitter and the Kremlin

The rise of social networks probably won't have a long-term impact on Russia's political future.

 Westerners are largely under the mistaken impression that the blossoming of social-networking sites (blogs, Twitter, cell phones, Facebook, etc.) are changing how people understand the world—but more specifically that it fundamentally opens societies up to the potential for democracy.

This has not been the case. As social psychologist Erich Fromm described, “Opinions formed by the powerless onlooker do not express his or her conviction, but are a game. . . . Without information, deliberation, and the power to make one's decision effective, democratically expressed opinion is hardly more than the applause at a sports event.” Without strong NGOs, independent courts and a vibrant media, idol chatter cannot become effective protest.

This mistake was clearly made by the Western media. And the misinterpretation was no more evident than during the outbreak of resentment across the Iranian social networks after the 2009 presidential election, which was promptly considered the first signs of public indignation and, hence, societal transformation. Growing information has also not deeply impacted the situation in Turkey or China. There is a similar misjudgment about Russian social networking.

Those in the West often assume that Russians are tired of corruption, bureaucracy and poor government, and will harness the power of new media to prompt positive changes in their country. And they frequently believe that the state will then undertake countermeasures to try to limit the flow of information, and that just as it was unable to direct change in the ’80s, so too will it ultimately be unable to shape a monolithic Kremlin message today. Indeed, to some extent the new social networks are truly becoming more reliable sources of news than the official or semiofficial channels. And even though the government—it would be more precise to say regional authorities—attempts to suppress certain revelations on social networks, foremost related to the blatant abuses of the local governments, such measures occur rarely and sporadically.

Increasing information has not led Russians to protest and thus poses no threat to authority. Network discussions are really more about social escapism than the forerunners to the advent of some nascent democracy. And they are unlikely to be deemed as “points of light,” but rather modern avatars of what Russian philosopher Nikolay Bedyayev defined a century ago when he said that Russians “prefer freedom from the state to freedom within the state.”

The previous decade in Russia serves as a case in point. Many of the signs of burgeoning democracy were in fact there. There was private powerful media; much more transparent and competitive elections on the federal and local levels, and a colorful political palette. But instead of consolidating and developing these gains, the populace called for now–Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The predominance of the state has been restored.

This restoration was feasible owing not to the government that “shaped a monolithic Kremlin message,” but rather to the Russians who accepted this message. Historically and socially Russians are not inclined to rely on themselves. According to the study “A Post-Soviet Man and a Civil Society” conducted by two prominent Russian scholars, Yury Senokosov and Boris Dubin:

The mass perceptions toward the role of state as well as relevant expectations boil down to the notion that the government should care for the people by providing them certain principle needs like jobs, housing, basic wages, social aid and education, while the people themselves are obliged to support the government and protect the ‘state interests.’

In the words of the authors, Russians clearly distinguish between “the Government” and “the masses.” Furthermore, the authors continue, the majority view this divided relationship as “normal, true, fair” and “accordant to Russian traditions.”

Putin, when he came to power in 1999, gave the public what they were hoping for; his agenda included restoration of a strong government, which according to him was an indispensable feature of a strong nation. A kind of unwritten public pact was concluded, which in essence read as: The state does not interfere in the everyday lives of the people; the people do not interfere in the everyday affairs of the state. Accordingly, only 5 percent of respondents are aware of their Parliament members, with 50 percent having quite vague notions about their MPs and 45 percent knowing nothing at all.

For those who believe Russians are dissatisfied, think again. If elections were conducted this coming Sunday, at least one-third of Russians would vote for Putin. This, with no campaign, no election promises and no agenda.

The nature of Putin’s popularity is truly remarkable. Many in the West incorrectly assume it is a direct consequence of the government’s predominance, spreading its own message while suppressing all others.

Not quite. Putin is a national symbol of stability—an end to chaos. The vast majority of Russians approve of Putin’s presidency but at the same time are restrained in judging his practical achievements. Putin plays the role of symbol rather than of effective manager.

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