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Russia: ‘Online Superman’ Navalny Has Bloggers Divided

Alexey Navalny is much more than a blogger. He exploded onto the Russian Internet with scandalous and already-known [Russian paradox] revelations and quickly grew into the country's “online Superman,” fighting what seems to be an unwinnable war against corruption and an army of human bots.

Western media rave about Navalny's persona. The New Yorker called him the “Russian Julian Assange or Lincoln Steffens” and The New York Times is fascinated by how Navalny “takes on big state-owned energy companies in his crusade against graft, kickbacks and bribery.” Among cyber-activists, the term the “Navalny Effect” has became almost equal in prominence to always-wanted-and-never-seen “Twitter Revolution.”

Picture by Azraeuz/DeviantArt, under Creative Commons license.

Picture by Azraeuz/DeviantArt, under Creative Commons license.

Knight in shining armor?

The New Yorker and The New York Times are, without any doubt, right in praising Navalny. Although not original, the idea of crowdsourcing the fight with corruption, can bring (and already has brought) many positive results. But as it often happens when Western media try to cover Russia, enormous amounts of important information goes unreported due (one hopes) to the objective difficulties of writing about something without a full understanding of the situation and history of the country.

Yet the reaction of Russian bloggers to Navalny is far from universal. Many netizens do consider him a knight in shining armor. Thousands donated money to Navalny's online project Rospil.info [ru], a website covering corruption in government tenders.

One cannot argue with the amazing success stories that have come about as a result of Navalny's hard work and efforts of Russian bloggers. Allegedly, many government officials were unable to add to their bank accounts because of the scrutiny their shady “projects” underwent on Rospil.info.

But there are those who question Navalny's actions and slogans, although it is difficult to find anyone unsatisfied with his anti-corruption initiatives. Blogger spenser78, for example, argues [ru] that Navalny's recent call to boycott the ruling party “United Russia” during the elections is nothing but “silliness” of someone who is “uninformed” about political status quo in Russia:

Правда номер один заключается в том, что все партии, представленные в Думе, существуют очень давно, их депутаты, лидеры и высшее руководство – богатые люди, сросшиеся с властью и пользующиеся множеством привилегий, которые дает статус. У них жены, дети, недвижимость, яхты и миллионные капиталы, им определенно есть, что терять. Потому возможности влияния на них со стороны жесткой и безжалостной к своим противникам кремлёвской группировки вряд ли можно переоценить. Не будет преувеличением сказать, что все, абсолютно все политические партии, представленные в Государственной Думе, ЯВЛЯЮТСЯ ТАКИМИ ЖЕ КАРМАННЫМИ ПАРТИЯМИ КРЕМЛЯ, КАК И «ЕДИНАЯ РОССИЯ».

The number one truth is that all parties represented in the Duma [Russian parliament] have been there for a long time. Their senators, leaders and high administration are rich people who are united with the power and who exploit the many privileges that their status gives them. They have wives, children, property, yachts and millions in capital. They definitely have something to lose. That is why one cannot overestimate the ability of harsh and merciless Kremlin factions who are his enemies to influence [other parties]. All, absolutely all political parties represented in the Duma are pocket parties of the Kremlin as “Edinaya Rossiya” is.

Too polished

Another blogger Maksim Aleksandrov (ma79accuses Navalny [ru] of being too glossy. He draws attention to Ivan Begtin, a blogger who has been fighting corruption with the help of his blog for a long time but, according to Aleksandrov, was ignored by media because Begtin is not handsome or articulate enough. “As it turned out,” Aleksandrov writes, “people are interested and have sympathy not toward those who are more efficient, but toward those who speak colorfully, look better and give an opportunity to hate.”

For the sake of objectivity, it should be noted here that Ivan Begtin does have amazing posts and results on corruption in Russian government but he was largely absent from media spotlight. Begtin is a creator of the Internet portal Rosspending.ru [ru] that monitors government purchases. According to blogger fritzmorgen [ru], Bektin's activity saved 3 milliard Russian roubles (around 110 million US dollars) from being embezzled.

alex-mos-cow notes [ru] the decline of interest toward Navalny's online project. The number of daily visitors of Rospil.info fell from 2,000 in February to 800 in March.

Blogger sapojnik explains [ru]:

с какого-то момента такие вот проекты становятся публике НЕПРИЯТНЫ. Не потому, что она вдруг начинает любить коррупционеров, а потому, что информации появляется все больше – а ничего не происходит. Тут работают голливудские механизмы: для того, чтобы нечто стало блокбастером, оно должно иметь хеппи-енд. А тут – никакого хеппи-энда, а наоборот, наш привычный российский “ужас без конца”.

Starting from a certain moment, these projects become unpleasant for the public. Not because people start to love corruption but because the information grows and nothing happens. Here, Holliwood mechanisms come to work: for something to become a blockbuster, it needs to have a happy end. And there is no happy end here but on the contrary, usuall Russia “horror without end.”

LiveJournal website user fima_psuchopadt talks about Navalny's interview [ru] in Russian oppositional newspaper The New Times, in which the interviewer starts their conversation with Navalny with words “Hi to the future President of Russia”. So much for journalistic objectivity and impartiality.

fima_psuchopadt also cites the results [ru] of recent survey of Levada-Center, Russian non-governmental research organization. The surveys results show that only an embarrassing (for opposition leaders more than for Navalny) 0.6 percent trust Alexey Navalny.

In an apathetically energetic post, blogger chashaosa compares [ru] Navalny to Boris Yeltsin and says that any fight with corruption becomes worthless as long as Russia still has former bandits in the high echelons of power.

A recent verbal duel between the governor of Perm region, Oleg Chirkunov [ru], and Alexey Navalny reawakened the suspicions of bloggers. Chirkunov donated [ru] money to Navalny and advocated for more transparency in Rospil.info – something that Navalny has always demanded from government bodies. Navalny's reply did not provide any significant hope for the future transparency of the project and only stressed the slogan that people “should trust” Navalny. But then again, too much transparency in Russia can easily lead to the collapse of a good initiative.

There is often distrust toward any anti-corruption project in Russia in general and, as a result mistrust directed towards Navalny in particular often appears on the Russian Internet. colonelcassad writes [ru] that this online fight with corruption is reminiscent of the “artificial” fight with the bad guys during the 1980s in the Soviet Union.

Bloggers’ divided reactions toward Navalny tells a lot about Russian society and its distrust of anything that originates within the country. As an old Russian saying goes, “There is no prophet in his own country.” The hope is that Alexey Navalny will prove this wrong.

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