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Russia: Ministry's Online Blunders

The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) has recently started to mobilise on the Internet and in the past weeks two important events have taken place online to draw attention to the Ministry's activities.

The VKontakte group

On May 18, 2011, the MVD announced the creation of an the department's official group [ru] on the popular social network VKontakte, a site similar to Facebook.

The moderator of this community goes by the name of Uncle Styopa, a character whose image, thanks to Soviet cartoons and books, is a positive one for many generations of Russian citizens. The aim of the group, as stated by the page's profile is to “unite those who have a connection to the police, the interior forces and other units of the MVD of the Russian Federation or anyone else who is interested in their activities.”

Image from the official MVD group on the site "Vkontakte". Top caption reads: "In Service of the Law. We Serve the People", and lower caption: "The Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation".

Image from the official MVD group on the site "Vkontakte". Top caption reads: "In Service of the Law. We Serve the People", and lower caption: "The Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation".

However, in comments made to the Itar-Tass news agency a representative of the MVD stated [ru], that the group's aim was to “organise new channels of information and communication which will allow for contact to be established with those who practically bypass traditional channels such as television, radio, and print news and who prefer to receive new information and socialize via their favourite social network.”

Twelve thousand people have already joined the group in just a short period of time. So far the group's increasing numbers are not particularly interesting: the group's official news feed on the MVD's activities has been republished in the form of quotes taken from the original site or news agencies, in other words without any adaptation of its officious language to a younger audience. For example:The Realisation of Composite [Investigative] Measures”; this language is not of great value when communicating with an Internet audience, and even less so with the young users of Vkontakte.

Unfortunately, the absence of unique content is unlikely to be able to retain the audience which has been gathered so far, nor will it capture the interest of newer members.

However, the MVD's representative states the contrary: “The selection of the social resource which lies at the basis of the groups creation was no accident. Using young rhetoric, common phrases and expressions and vibrant personalities, the ministry purposefully obtained the support of the youngest and most active part of the country's population since, after all, the average age of the users of “Vkontakte” is 18 to 25 years.”

Search conducted at police-russia.ru creator's office

On the same day, May 18, two events took place that had a connection with both the Internet and the MVD. The MVD's Internal Security Service led a search of the office of a senior inspector of the Department for the Coordination of Government Spending of the Russian MVD, a Russian police major named Dmitri Vorobyev.

Vorobyev, according to the commander of the Department of Internal Security MVD (see here for the official order on the carrying out of the search), “had created a site called police-rassian.ru, in order to counter the official site of the Russian MVD” where, according to Draguntsov, “false or slanderous data was knowingly hosted regarding the employees of the Central Apparatus of the Russian MVD. The site explained the specific activities of the different subdivisions of the Russian MVD, which are not to be published in readily accessible sources of information, and in an insulting form criticized the Ministry's work.”

These arguments formed the basis for the decision to carry out the search in Dmitri Vorobyev's work office, which, to all appearances, was carried out in order to find additional ‘evidence’ for the case about his criminal doings.

Within the limits of the search the police were assigned the task of “inspection, studying and removal of articles”, including electronic media, documents concerning illegal activities, which in practice means removal of the computer's hard disk, all other disks, flash drives and other media as well as piles of paper and even books, which more often than not bear no relation to the case. [I speak from the experience of many of my friends who have had searches carried out in cases of so-called political extremism].

An extract from the police order. Screenshot from the website Police-Russia.ru.

An extract from the police order. Screenshot from the website Police-Russia.ru.

The most interesting thing is that the site that is being talked about in conjunction with this decision does not actually exist under the domain police-rassian.ru.

Dmitri Vorobyev, in actual fact, is the creator of the police forum police-russia.com [ru], which is also available at the domains police-russia.ru, police-russia.com, militia-russia.ru.

Whoever wrote what appeared in the decision-making process for the search could not even correctly indicate the site's name. Yet another question which has been brought up is the spelling of the country's name – the second mistake afforded by the document.

The forum police-russia.com has existed for a long time and is a popular place for MVD and other security service employees to discuss and exchange opinions. Often normal citizens join in discussions, such as those following the Dissenters’ March in 2006 and 2007, which ended in a strong crackdown on demonstrators.

On the forum there was a big discussion between the workers of the Special Purposes Police Unit (OMON) and the marchers who tried to discuss why there is always a crackdown, however law abiding they are and however properly the employees of the Security Services act during the crackdown. This discussion (which has now unfortunately been removed from the forum [ru]) was very important and showed that the demonstrators had a direct conversation with those who were ordered to hit them.

It is interesting that this forum became a place where allegations of corruption and acts of law breaking within the MVD were published. In this respect, on April 22, 2011, the thread “Corruption in the MVD's Support Division” was published, with a reference to the appeals [ru] from the workers of the Support Division to the country's leadership with discussions regarding the billions embezzled through government purchase contracts for MVD needs.

Public relations ‘vertical’ vs bottom-up initiatives

This is a comment [ru] from a current MVD employee and a participant in the forum, about the order to conduct the search and the attempt to bring a criminal case against the creator of the forum:

The creation of the forum to counterbalance the official MVD site does not contradict the existing legal system. The forum's aim was not to spread lies or offensive data in relation to the Central Apparatus of the MVD. The individuals who spread such data bear the responsibility regardless of whatever site it was distributed on. Therefore, the site's creators cannot be responsible for any offensive language or slander written by one of the site's users. Find those who spread it. An explanation of the specific procedures of the MVD subdivisions can be accessed openly in textbooks on legal procedure, criminal investigation, the MVD's administrative work etc. In the forum secret government data was not expanded upon and had appeared accidentally before being quickly removed by the administration.

Transparency, as a principle of the work of our government, is one stipulated by our Constitution and by the law on government service. The suppression of transparency is a direct encroachment on the legal foundation of the country where you live. Your decision is unlawful. We would like to forewarn you that the regular participants in the forum are not only MVD employees but simple citizens, the mass media and deputies of the Duma who serve the government of the Russian Federation and its Constitution. Unlawful attempts to close the forum or persecute their creators could incite people to turn to the General Prosecutor's body, the State Duma, the President of the Russian Federation, international organisations, including group and mass acts of protests. I call on you to prevent unlawful actions. Your challenge to propose a way of leading negotiations has been set.

The reaction of the activists on the forum at the attempt to close it down and put pressure on its creators was interesting. By a way of a counter action the particpants began discussing registering the forum as a non-profit organisation and including former employees of the MVD. One of the participants of the forum, Plastun wrote [ru]:

With a such resistance movement it would be more efficient to oppose [the attempts of closure], since such associations would be able to defend members’ rights by representing their interests in law-enforcement bodies whatever their level and to defend the rights of those who still work, simply by receiving information about rights infringements and making a claim on their behalf.

In reply to this, the creator of the forum clarifies [ru] “This idea is already in motion I would say”.

And so what will we get as a result? An uninteresting, boring group on the social network Vkontakte, created by official MVD structures and an attempt to shut down and pressure the lively and interesting forum of MVD employees. Alas, this is a widespread bureaucratic practice, as one of the participants, Begemot, noted [ru]:

There is a police PR department. It is a powerful organization of several thousand employees, with salaries and full expenses which has, at least, twenty to thirty experienced specialists who occupy themselves with backing the online image of the MVD. […] At one point in time a lieutenant colonel [Vorobiev] […] creates a site which gathers a group of like-minded people, with only a pitiful budget (in ministry terms) and the site becomes the COUNTERBALANCE for the whole bulky official MVD site, which cost… but yes we're not talking about money and neither is it the question at hand. The question is a person. And  a professional. […] A first class professional who had established, almost single-handedly and almost without a budget, the competition to the whole MVD department!

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