Russia's Failed e-Democracy?

Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

In an attempt to engage the public in the government’s decisionmaking, last year the Kremlin launched an online portal called the Russian Public Initiative (ROI), allowing anyone with Internet access the chance to propose new legislation and vote on others’ petitions. Every initiative that collects 100 thousand votes within a year automatically goes to a government council, which determines if lawmakers in the Russian parliament will consider the legislation.

Though ROI has been up and running for fifteen months, the 100-thousand-votes threshold has proved too great for all but four initiatives, each of which the government’s review board has declined to send to the parliament. One of the four successful petitions, for example, called for the abolition of a 2013 federal law that allows the state to block access to websites that host pirated intellectual property. The government’s expert council refused to let the parliament review the initiative, arguing that it proposes “unreasonable” reforms.

Another successful initiative, rejected by experts earlier this month, advocated revoking public officials’ traffic privileges. The petition’s chief promoter was Petr Shkumatov, who coordinates the so-called “Blue Bucket Society,” a protest group formed in opposition to public servants’ arbitrary, self-serving use of emergency rotating blue flashers on the highways. On ROI, Shkumatov proposed restricting the use of these sirens to strictly emergency personnel.

Blue Bucket Society activists prepare a car for a protest against abuses on Russia's roads. April 25, 2010.

On May 15, 2014, after the Blue Bucket petition collected its 100 thousandth signature, ROI’s expert council treated the initiative as though it called for highway anarchy:

Необходимо отметить, что вопросы использования специальных световых и звуковых сигналов, устанавливаемых на транспортные средства […] и получения преимущества такими транспортными средствами перед другими участниками дорожного движения в достаточной мере и исчерпывающе урегулированы действующим законодательством Российской Федерации. Предоставление преимущественного права проезда указанных транспортных средств соответствует нормам международного права – Конвенции о дорожном движении, заключенной в г. Вене 08.11.1968, которая на ряду с общепризнанными принципами и нормами международного права является составной частью правовой системы Российской Федерации.

It is necessary to note that there are already adequate and comprehensive regulations in the laws of the Russian Federation on the matter of using special light and sound signals mounted on vehicles […] and receiving special privileges on the road. Granting the right of way to special vehicles corresponds to the norms of international law – in particular the November 8, 1968, Vienna Traffic Convention, which is an integral part of the legal system of Russian Federation, alongside other norms and principles widely recognized by international law.

Reacting to the negative feedback, Shkumatov expressed in the Blue Bucket Society’s LiveJournal community how disappointed he was in the ROI petition process.

Чиновники прямо на моих глазах взяли и спустили ручку унитаза, в котором утонули 100 тысяч наших голосов, включая и мой. Конечно, я не верил в чудо, но я надеялся. Полный крах моих надежд произошел именно вчера. Я понял и лично увидел, что чиновники просто и непринужденно “валят” неудобные им лично инициативы и рьяно поддерживают те инициативы, которые сами и выдвигают. РОИ превратилась из инструмента прямой демократии в инструмент имитации демократии, после чего потеряла всякую значимость для думающих людей. Увы.

Before my very eyes, these public officials reached out and flushed down the toilet 100 thousand of our votes – mine included. Of course, I didn’t expect a miracle, but I had hope. It was yesterday that my hopes completely collapsed. I saw that these officials simply “cut down” any inconvenient initiatives and passionately support the ones they've proposed themselves. ROI has transformed from an instrument of direct democracy into an instrument of imitated democracy, robbing it of any meaning for people who can think on their own. Oh well.

When a commenter asked if he was officially giving up, Shkumatov promised to fight on. The Blue Bucketeers have obliged him, continuing to collect information about traffic violations and post online photos and videos documenting abuses on the highways. Indeed, on the 19th day of every month, the group stages an automotive rally, where members drive around with actual blue buckets atop their cars, mocking the sirens used by state officials.

Another ROI petition that might come before a government council later this year is an initiative that would require travel visas for visitors from countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus, as a means of curbing illegal immigration into Russia. The petition, which currently has over 66 thousand signatures, enjoys the vociferous support of anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny, who is a self-described Russian nationalist. Considering the expert council’s history of rejecting successful petitions, not to mention the Kremlin’s tireless persecution of Navalny and its growing interest in developing the economic zone with the East, it is unlikely that ROI would ever send a visa-regime initiative to the parliament. If and when the government does dismiss legislation to crack down on immigrants from the East, however, it is sure to reignite Russia’s nationalist debate, which periodically sparks ethnic riots throughout the country.

Yelena Mizulina, July 26, 2013, Izvestia.

While some have welcomed Russia’s online petitions system as a means to participate in decisionmaking on the federal level, others have preferred to use independent portals like One popular campaign on that website targets lawmaker Yelena Mizulina, who has spearheaded controversial legislation to restrict LGBT rights, ban adoptions of Russian orphans by foreigners, and censor foul language. The petition calls on Russia’s Health Ministry to conduct a psychiatric evaluation of Mizulina, to determine if she is mentally fit to serve as a member of parliament. (The authors of the initiative are skeptical that she is.)

The anti-Mizulina petition has over 100 thousand signatures, but it’s not hosted on ROI, making it entirely unofficial and nonbinding on the Russian government. In other words, ROI doesn’t even have to assemble its team of experts this time. The passage of time and the RuNet’s fading interest will be enough to protect Mizulina and Russia’s other hated politicians from the booby hatch.

But many in the public, undaunted it seems, will keep asking.

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