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Is Navalny being censored?

by James Brooke at 11/04/2011 20:20

Do a Google search on “Kadyrov cars”, “Kadyrov palace” or “Kadyrov racehorse”. Russians often wonder what happens to the billions of roubles the Kremlin pours into Chechnya to prop up Ramzan Kadyrov, the chief of the long-rebellious republic. Five minutes on Google gives a juicy hint.

Russia is riding the rocket of some of the fastest-growing rates of Internet connectivity in the world. Week by week, more and more Russians have been getting a clearer, uncensored picture of the corruption that permeates a government funded with $120-a-barrel oil.

The poster boy for this new transparency is Alexei Navalny, a 34-year-old, blue-eyed, anticorruption crusader.

Shut out of Kremlin-controlled TV, Navalny develops his audience on the Internet.

Last fall, 1 million unique visitors came to his site when he posted documents alleging that officials at Transneft, the state oil pipeline monopoly, stole $4 billion during the construction of Russia’s first pipeline to China. After Navalny debated corruption-fighting strategies with a Moscow economist, 700,000 watched the debate on YouTube.

“If 800,000 people read my blog, why do I need Channel One?” Navalny asked me over dinner recently, referring to the nation’s lead, government-controlled station.

But Russia is entering an election year. In December, Russians vote for parliament. Next March, they vote for president. Voter surveys show that corruption now tops the anger lists of voters. Many Russians say they do not need Transparency International to tell them they are navigating in the world’s most corrupt major economy.

Corruption stories ricochet around Russia’s lightly-regulated Internet.

Navalny said: ‘If 800,000 people read my blog, why do I need Channel One?’

© RIA Novosti. / Mikhail Fomichev

Navalny said: ‘If 800,000 people read my blog, why do I need Channel One?’

In one, a nurse alleged that before Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited a regional hospital last year, the doctors told several nurses to dress up as patients. They were filmed, lying in bed, telling the visiting prime minister that the care they were receiving was great.

In another case, a psychiatric hospital in St. Petersburg bought 200 mink coats. When asked why, the hospital director answered that the patients wanted to wear mink.

In the past, crusading newspaper reporters have been beaten or killed.

In the most prominent case, Anna Politkovskaya, was shot to death in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building on Oct. 7, 2006, the birthday of then-President Putin.

Putin later said that Politkovskaya was little known and little read in Russia.

But Navalny, with his massive following of middle-class netizens, is too powerful to be attacked directly.

But now, we may be witnessing the start of a veiled campaign to silence Navalny and to stifle his anti-corruption crusade.

Last month, Russian web surfers noticed anonymous offers to pay people 14,000 roubles a month – about $430 a month — to spam Navalny’s blog with hostile comments.

Last week, anonymous Internet hackers intermittently shut down Navalny’s site and then its host, the LiveJournal blogging site. LiveJournal hosts 45 percent of the nation’s online blogs and diaries. With almost 1 million visitors a day, it is the seventh most popular site in Russia.

President Medvedev often calls the Internet a crucial tool for transparency in government.

But the fate of Alexei Navalny in an election year may determine limits on the Internet in Russia for years to come. 

James Brooke is the Moscow bureau chief for Voice of America. To see all “Russia Watch” posts, go to voanews.com

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