Russia: LiveJournal Communities as a Transparency Tool

In the countries with low levels of transparency, new media often become the only arena for exposing violations made by the government. In the countries where the truly independent NGOs are often oppressed and it's hard to establish transparency-related independent NGOs, new media come again to help. Russia is an example of a country with a high level of corruption and disregard for non-partisan NGOs. These two factors together with the popularity of LiveJournal as a main blogging platform explain why LiveJournal communities more and more often become spontaneous transparency tools.

The corruption and transparency situation in Russia is far from good. According to the Corruption Perceptions Index 2009 report [EN], Russia and Ukraine have the worst corruption indices in Europe and almost the worst in the world (they are ranked 146 of 180). The dynamics aren't optimistic either — in 2003 Russia ranked 86th out of 133 countries of the index. According to a Levada center survey [RUS] conducted in June 2010, 60 percent of Russians think that the scale of corruption is increasing, while independent analysts [EN] believe corruption accounts for 50 percent of the Russian GDP [EN]. The situation with the NGOs is also one of the Europe's worst. According to the NGO sustainability index [EN], a worse situation with respect to the NGO environment on the continent can be found only in Belarus.

LiveJournal communities for transparency are not like ‘traditional’ online transparency tools. They're not institutionalized, have no vivid leaders, no financial support, and often die as suddenly as they were born. This is the reason they're often neglected in the official reports (e.g., the USAID NGO sustainability 2009 report [EN]). At the same time, their role in eventual advocacy and media campaigns is quite high. Several communities are analyzed below to show the mechanisms and practices used by bloggers to expose authorities’ violations: antimigalki [RUS] and Little Blue Bucket Society [RUS] (communities that monitor and expose the misuse of emergency vehicle lighting), “goszakupki” [RUS] and also LJ user zakupki-news (the account acts a multi-user blog focused on public procurement issues).

Communities for the Equality on the Road

Inequality on the Russian roads is both a serious issue and an indicator of the general inequality and corruption in the country. The most famous case illustrating the situation – was the car accident involving the top manager of the oil company Anatoliy Barkov [EN]. Barkov's car was driving on the opposite lane and hit a car containing two female doctors that died immediately after the crash. Neither Barkov himself nor his driver were prosecuted.

Barkov's case gave life to an old issue of unspoken privileges for top businessmen and government officials on Russian roads. Mercedeses, Porches or Maibachs with “special” license plates (like the ones with three “C” or “O” in a row – Barkov's luxury Mercedes had the number c398cc77) are ignored by traffic police and are, in an Orwellian way, “more equal than others” [EN]. Special license plate numbers are normally assigned to special services cars so they can be identified by policemen. But this practice got corrupted. Instead of a tool for better work, the license plates became an example of overwhelming corruption: they can be “bought” in the traffic department.

The case provoked emergence of at least two LiveJournal communities – Antimigalki (created on April 13, 2010 by famous opposition journalist Andrei Malgin) and Little Blue Buckets Society (created on April, 14). Both communities are dedicated to one thing: ban of the unspoken privileges given to authorities and VIPs by special license plates and emergency vehicle lights. The methods of those two, however differ. Antimigalki posts evidence (photos and videos) of the road violations that are ignored by the road police, while Little Blue Buckets Society organizes flashmobs (Global Voices has covered their activity in the past). One of the Antimigalki videos depicts a car driving in the opposite lane (a driving rule violation that can result in full withdrawal of a driving license):

Another citizen project, technologically different (a phpBB-based forum, not a LJ-community) is – “A Website About Those Marked by the Power” [RUS]. The mission of the project is to collect and identify drivers with “VIP license plates” and, if possible, to expose their violations. The site is trying to fight the issue the VIP license plate swapping. Government authorities have been caught “lending” their license plates to businessmen, some of whom have criminal ties. The idea of such swapping is that the VIP license plate gives a car some certain immunity, thus making it very tempting for criminals to buy it from the authorities.

Communities for the transparency in public procurement

Despite the increasing level of corruption, Russian authorities are making certain steps towards higher transparency. One of such steps is the obligation of the government departments to publish their tenders online at [RUS]. For a long time, the data, even published online, was inaccessible because of the complexity of the website interface. Bloggers, however, were curious to look through the database. That's how goszakupki and zakupki-news emerged. Both communities pay attention to the different government auctions, especially those that either involve huge amounts of money or just seem strange or even ridiculous. Some comments [RUS] are quite sarcastic:

300 мётел для ФСО
может, готовится чемпионат по квиддичу?

300 brooms for the Federal Security Service
probably, we're getting ready for a Quidditch [EN] championship?

Or, this one:

Flash-игры для сайта Минобороны
они действительно заказаны победителю соответствующего тендера —
ни победитель, ни Минобороны пока не рассказывают толком, какие будут сюжеты у этих игр — наверное, еще и сами не знают
может, поможем им придумать?

Flash games for the website of Ministry of Defense
They're really obligatory to be made for the winner of this tender –
Neither the winner, nor the Ministry of Defense do not really tell, what will be the plots of these games — probably, they don't know them either
Maybe we can help them?

Other strange government tenders exposed by these two communities include: $35698 for government Christmas-tree decorations, an armed Mercedes for FSB (Russia's federal security service), a luxurious Volvo for a Ethnography museum [RUS], and others.

As we can see, LiveJournal communities add their humble contribution to the transparency process. They are chaotic, neither organized nor institutionalized, but these communities are attracting more and more people. Establishing a LJ-community to deal with a certain problem is becoming a common practice. These problems might not be necessarily a transparency issue: for example, LJ-community pozhar_ru, which was established simultaneously with the outburst of wildfires, became a very important tool that helped to coordinate help. The growing number of different transparency/coordination LJ-communities indicates the seek for the technological solutions for the open and free forums of information exchange.


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