Whether Russia is on the brink of a revolution or not remains uncertain, but recent protests are gathering momentum in making it very clear that Russia’s people are furious with its leaders. What is really going on? Here’s what we know so far.
On Sunday 31 January 2021, tens of thousands of Russians crowded the streets to demand the release of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was jailed in mid January after returning from Berlin, where he was recovering from a poisoning by a military-grade nerve agent in Siberia last August.
Navalny was poisoned with Novichok, which is the name for a group of nerve agents created by scientists during the Soviet Union between 1971 and 1993. It is designed to kill quickly, and silently. The poison effectively kills, sometimes in a matter of minutes, by disrupting the communication between nerves and muscles as well as the brain. This results in cardiac arrest or asphyxiation as the final cause of death.
The last time Novichok made headlines was back in 2018, when former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal were attacked in the city of Salisbury in the UK. The pair were found unconscious on a park bench. Speculatively, Russia had been spying on the former double agent for at least five years prior to his assasination.
The protests are the result of current president, Vladimir Putin’s paranoia towards losing his position. As Sky News reported, “he cannot allow peaceful protest in the name of his arch-nemesis, Alexei Navalny, and that means his police will use batons, brute force and stun guns against entirely peaceful protesters.”
Putin has been in power for almost 21 years, and it cannot last forever. Navalny has been a long time critic of the president, and has risked imprisonment (or assasination) by going back into Russia to continue his fight to end Putin’s term. In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the country has suffered a drying up of foreign (and domestic) investment due to sanctions, among many other issues. In other words, Putin’s promise to make “Russia great again” remains a (familiar) phrase that reaps no prosperity, even after two decades.
The upcoming 2021 elections are bound to be in the spotlight, thanks to the media, which the country has somewhat dodged in the past, allowing Putin to continue without worldwide controversy. The Telegraph spoke to one of the many protestors, who stated that she had “had enough” with the government’s corruption. She added that “What we’re seeing right now is just a small fraction of those who are unhappy but they’re too scared to come out.”
Yulia, a 40-year-old protester in Moscow, told Aljazeera that she had come to the protests “despite having a panic attack the night before because of worrying about repercussions for taking part,” continuing that “I understand that I live in a totally lawless state. In a police state, with no independent courts. In a country ruled by corruption. I would like to live differently.”
The mostly young protestors chanted “Putin is a thief” and “Freedom for Russia.” Authorities are ramping up the pressure with arrests, these numbers amounted to 5,000 cases on Sunday 31 January, and aggression through desperation is not far off a description when watching any of the videos that have been posted online.
View this post on Instagram
Dayna, a student and protester who was detained last Saturday, 23 January, along with several friends, told the BBC that “We share one problem: the way we’re governed. We’re all protesting for one thing: the alternation of power.”
The Moscow Kremlin, which translates into “fortress inside a city” and is the government of the Russian Federation, similar to the the White House in the US, is unlikely to backdown on Navalny’s jailing according to what Tatyana Stanovaya, head of the political analysis firm R.Politik toldThe Telegraph.
Stanovaya explained that “Authorities see that they can jail people and not worry about higher numbers.” But “people are going to keep going out if they see that Navalny has been unjustly jailed and that other political prisoners are still in custody” added Alexei Venediktov, editor of the Ekho Moskvy radio station, speaking to the Russian Dozhd TV channel on Sunday 31 January.
What happens next will unfurl as it will, but because the innards of Russia are now being analysed by the rest of the world, including the US’ Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who condemned what he said was the “persistent use of harsh tactics against peaceful protesters and journalists,” and called for Navalny’s release.
Change might be forced to happen, finally—in this case, Putin might be ruled over by his own people, which hopefully, will be change for the better. Either way, corruption’s immediate predator is publicity, and thankfully, transparency is steadily growing, regardless of Russia’s past secret nature.
Russia’s plans to start its own version of the internet have been in the headlines recently, but it’s nothing new. In 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised fears about cybersecurity and sovereignty, and revealed that the Russian government had been developing a plan to create an entirely separate internet in Russia—in case of a global emergency, he claimed.
In early February, the lower house of Russian parliament, the Duma, convened to debate a new bill which would create a domestic Russian internet. With the exception of United Russia (Putin’s party), every other party was in opposition to the bill—but as United Russia has the majority, the bill has moved forward—with or without the support of other parties.
The state’s grip on internet access in Russia has been tightening for many years. In July of 2014, the Duma passed a law which required websites with data on Russian citizens to store it within the country’s own database. Big websites like Twitter and Facebook came under fire for not complying with these regulations this year, although they made no significant effort to correct this either.
Two years later, in 2016, other laws passed by the Duma made private online networks illegal, and also made it compulsory for internet and telecommunications companies to keep records of communications for six months at least. But even though these laws were instituted as sweeping reforms, there are minimal enforcement procedures in place.
Demonstrators coursed through the streets of Moscow, numbering around 15,000, in protest against this new bill. They say that it constitutes yet another form of censorship by the Russian government, masked under concerns about cybersecurity. Michel Svetov, an activist and blogger based in Moscow, asserted to The Moscow Times that these are further attempts by the government to control what people can and cannot see on the internet in a bid to stifle protests against inequality and corruption more generally.
This bill would be an amendment to a law which was passed in 2003, called the Federal Law of Communications. It states that traffic exchange points—essentially where servers send requests to other servers, such as your internet service provider sending a signal to the servers for Wikipedia—would have to be reviewed by the Russian government. The Federal Service for the Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, known as the Roskomnadzor, is the state agency in Russia which endowed with the ability to deem what content on the internet is legal. Roskomnadzor already has a list of websites labelled as threats to national security, which has been the subject of many protests previously.
In 2017, around 60 percent of Russian internet traffic was handled by foreign servers. Changing this rapidly on such a massive scale would be a significant undertaking. Russian internet service providers (ISPS) would also have to create entirely new filters that monitor online traffic coming in and out of the country and block ‘banned’ content. The resources necessary to create this entirely separate network are immense. Russia already has a national domain name system—.ru—but if you wanted to access material from outside what’s hosted in Russia, then servers in Russia would have to send a request to the external server hosting that content.
In order to make this bill a reality, all of the web content that the Roskomnadzor deemed legal would have to be duplicated, copied, and somehow hosted on servers within Russia itself. But loading all of this content onto Russian servers—which would mean anticipating anything people could look up online, such as university students searching for sources for a paper or aspiring chefs looking up recipes from other countries—is complicated. Even if these systems simply duplicated information available elsewhere, there are still problems around copyright, ownership, and intellectual property which would complicate the matter. In this case, there would be huge amounts of material—such as books, music, or even films—which people in Russia simply wouldn’t be able to access.
While a test was scheduled to take place before a second reading of the bill (date unconfirmed), there is no information which indicates that this has taken place. This test—which would have seen Russia disconnecting from the global internet briefly—would give internet service providers information about how this would actually affect them. For example, this would make it clear what kinds of information was definitely hosted on foreign servers, and which kinds of capacities they would lose as a result of disconnection.
Critics have been pointing out the law’s flaws and predicted that it won’t be implemented as planned. Karen Kazaryan, chief analyst of the Russian Association of Electronic Communications (RAEC) declared, “It won’t work. Russia is not China. It’s very complex and expensive to build a system like this and we simply don’t have the engineers to realize this project.” Still, if passed, this bill would give the Russian government the ability to censor online content and disconnect its citizens from the rest of the world, enacting censorship on an even wider scale.