Weekly 13 March 2021

Trialing internet isolation

Hello! This week our top story is on how Russia is using a Twitter slowdown as a way to trial the viability of its new ‘sovereign internet’ law. We also look at why Russia picked the progressive Manizha as its entry for Eurovision, and Putin’s increasingly Soviet economic approach.

Russia tests ‘sovereign internet’ in Twitter slowdown

The Russian authorities this week took their first big step toward a ‘sovereign internet’ by power switching off social networks. Internet watchdog Roskomnadzor said Wednesday it managed to slow down the work of Twitter after the microblogging site refused to delete content. But the results were not particularly impressive: the slowdown actually only impacted the quality of video clips on Twitter and Roskomnadzor managed to inadvertently take down a string of state websites.

  • Roskomnadzor announced Wednesday morning that Twitter was now on an official blacklist of websites and its services in Russia would be slowed. The official explanation for this was that Twitter has refused to delete about 10 percent of the content (about 3,168 tweets) that Roskomnadzor deemed unlawful in the last three days. But the real reason is linked with the social network’s role in organizing opposition street protests.
  • In late January and early February, Roskomnadzor threatened social networks with fines if they failed to delete posts promoting ‘illegal protests’, and Twitter was among the worst ‘offenders’. President Vladimir Putin has twice recently spoken of the need to fight the spread of prohibited online content, warning that children were being enticed to attend unsanctioned street protests.
  • Roskomnadzor said Twitter’s working speed would be reduced 100 percent on mobile devices and 50 percent on desktops and laptops. According to experts who spoke to The Bell, these figures correspond to the extent that the blocking systems established under a 2019 ‘sovereign internet’ law allow for network penetration.
  • That law greatly extended the authorities’ control over the internet, and we wrote about it in detail at the time In short, it obliges all telecom operators to install equipment to allow Roskomnadzor to block sites, slow down internet services and — in response to a national security threat — disconnect the Russian internet from the rest of the world.
  • However, the first serious attempt to use the law – to slow Twitter — had little impact. Most users did not notice anything. Several experts told The Bell officials chose the wrong target:  from a technical point of view, attempting to slow a site made up of short text messages has little impact on users (only viewing photos or video clips was made more difficult). But the choice of Twitter was likely a political choice: Twitter is nowhere near as popular in Russia as the U.S. so slowing the site would not risk the same public anger as, for example, blocking YouTube or Instagram.
  • But even this limited operation was plagued with errors. Throughout Wednesday morning it was impossible to open the Kremlin website, as well as the sites of both houses of parliament, the Investigative Committee and even Roskomnadzor. It later transpired this problem arose as Roskomndazor blocked all domains with https://t.co – one of Twitter’s main addresses. The collateral included the likes of reddit.com and Microsoft.com, as well as the rtcomm.ru addresses of state provider Rostelecom, which hosts government sites. It took five hours to fix the problem.
  • All this incompetence reminded many of Roskomnadzor’s failed attempt to block Telegram in 2018. In its efforts to halt the work of the messaging site, Roskomnadzor managed to deny almost 1 percent of the world’s IP addresses access to Russia. That dealt a big blow to services offered by Google, Amazon and Microsoft and, once again, Roskomnadzor’s own site. Officially, Telegram was unblocked two years later, but in reality the service never stopped working.

Why the world should care

Slowing Twitter is just a test, and it’s too early to judge the results. It may be happening now as part of official planning for more widespread restrictions on social networks in the case of protests linked to September parliamentary elections. If so, only then will we see if Roskomnadzor can build something like the Great Firewall of China.

Carrots and sticks as Putin urges investment in Russia

Putin invited billionaires and directors of state companies Thursday to hear his latest bid to encourage them to invest in Russia, which was accompanied by a warning that the tax service will monitor where companies put their profits. All this is unlikely to work, not least because, at the same meeting, Putin neatly illustrated some of the inherent risks of investing in Russia.

  • Putin invited 66 billionaires and heads of leading state companies to discuss a key economic target: a 70 percent increase in Russia-bound investment by 2030. This is designed to speed up economic growth which — for almost a decade — has not exceeded 2 percent a year.
  • Putin told the assembled company that now was an excellent time to invest in Russia. He said that the crisis on the commodity markets is over, several trends show “multi-year highs” and Russian exporters will make good profits in 2021. Naturally, Putin told the companies it’s their decision where to invest, but he said investment would be better at home, where things are “calmer”. Safe havens of old may now be less safe, Putin warned.
  • Putin understands perfectly that these fine words will not encourage billionaires to forego the returns they make on overseas investments. So, in addition to promises of more tax breaks, he announced he has asked the tax authorities to carry out “detailed monitoring” of profits and revealed that he will get a quarterly report showing whether Russia’s raw materials are being “converted into new investment, infrastructure, social or environmental projects [in Russia].”
  • There was no mention of any consequences for companies whose profits are not invested at home. But, Putin reminded everyone that companies that focus on short-term profit often face difficulties — and that resolving problems can be very expensive. It’s likely this particular comment was aimed at Vladimir Potanin, currently Russia’s richest man, who recently paid a $2 billion fine for an environmental disaster at one of his facilities.
  • However, Putin’s words also illustrated exactly the kind of state-sponsored problems that discourage companies from investing in Russia. Since the start of the year, the authorities have been struggling to control prices for grain, vegetable oil and sugar, which are rising fast. Retailers and manufacturers have been subjected to price caps and there are also new, punitive tariffs for exporters, which disrupt existing contracts. Vadim Moshkovich, owner of RusAgro, the country’s biggest agricultural holding, assured Putin his company was doing everything it could to control prices, but complained about the possible extra export duties on vegetable oils. Moshkovich fears this will reduce his investment options. Putin replied that Russian agribusiness owes all its successes to the state, and there is nothing wrong with reining in excessive profit-taking.

Why the world should care

Putin’s approach brings to mind Soviet hardliners of the early 1980s: he believes that establishing economic discipline, cracking down on corruption and putting revenue into infrastructure projects is a recipe for success. Economic regulation is also getting progressively more Soviet: for the first time, the government is now seriously attempting direct price controls on the consumer market. We don’t need to remind anyone how this worked out for the Soviet government at the end of the 1980s.

Russia’s Eurovision entry sends progressive message

In contrast to many European countries, eligible former Soviet nations tend to regard Eurovision as a source of national pride and a valuable instrument of soft power. This year, Russia selected Manizha Sangin, an immigrant from the Central Asian country of Tajikistan who has publicly supported women’s rights, refugees and the LGBT community. Why does this matter?

What’s going on?

  • Russia chooses its Eurovision entry via a television poll like most other countries and Manizha won the poll Monday with 39.7 percent of the vote. It was a deeply symbolic moment: her song, Russian Woman, is all about empowerment and the struggle against gender stereotypes. Manizha sings in Russian about not wanting to wait for a knight in shining army (“What are you waiting for? Get up and go!”), about stereotypes about appearances (“You’d be cute if you lost some weight”), and about how most children in Russia are brought up by women (“A son without a father, a daughter without a dad, but this broken family didn’t break me”).
  • Many Russians reacted negatively to the message, the song, and the performer. And the online haters were out in force, using ethnic slurs to refer to Manizha. The song’s feminist message came under fire, and some Russian women clearly felt humiliated (the average Russian woman hides that she faces her problems alone so as to be seen as soft and gentle). Last but not least, some felt the song itself was a disappointment — an incomprehensible mix of rap, folk motifs and spoken words — and complained it wasn’t sung in English.
  • Manizha’s unlikely selection led some to remember a recent case of vote rigging on state-owned television. On that occasion, the wealthy parents of one contestant simply purchased hundreds of text messages in support for their daughter. Thanks to that incident it emerged how this kind of rigging works and that, with a total of a few hundred thousand votes, the difference between winning and losing might come down to just a few thousand votes.

What does Manizha stand for?

  • Of course, there are organizations that protect the rights of refugees and women in Russia. But their supporters are a minority and they often find themselves in conflict with the authorities. Domestic violence is rampant in Russia, and the police offer little protection. For example, the charity Nasiliu.net, which helps victims of domestic violence, was last week branded a ‘foreign agent’ and thrown out of its offices (even if its head, Anna Rivina, recently made the front cover of Time magazine). According to opinion polls, 71 percent of Russians believe a woman’s most important role is to be a mother and housewife. Slutshaming, the glass ceiling, unequal pay, and a refusal to accept that harassment is real all flourish.
  • Immigrants in Russia don’t fare any better. It’s not clear how many there are, but most estimates suggest the figure is up to 10 million. Many work illegally, living in overcrowded rooms, facing daily racism and unable to claim refugee status. That means their children can’t go to school and they can’t access health care. However, even in progressive circles, this issue is raised less often than feminism. The reason is simple: there are more women in these circles than immigrants.
  • Manizha has direct experience of these social ills. Born in 1991, her family moved to Russia when she was two-and-a-half during Tajikistan’s civil war. Her mother (now her manager) qualified as a physicist and raised five children on her own, earning money by sewing and baking. For many years, the family had no documents and Manizha only got Russian citizenship aged 14: to get her a place at kindergarten and school, her mother paid bribes. Manizha has recalled how her classmates routinely used ethnic slurs and has said her nephews face the same abuse today. Last year, Manizha became Russia’s first UN Goodwill Ambassador, advocating refugee rights and speaking up for women’s rights (she has a song about domestic violence and an app for people who encounter abus) and LGBT rights. Little of this was mentioned in state-owned outlets reporting on her win: for example, this profile piece just talks vaguely about charity work.
  • Manizha represents a progressive position on many issues that generate little debate in Russia. In other words, she personifies some key social problems, but not the official approach toward resolving them. Her message stands in stark contradiction to both what Russia represents and what it wishes to become. The authorities may think she has the talent to win, but they have no interest in listening to her message about her own country.

It’s not just Russia

  • In neighboring Belarus, Eurovision also sparked controversy. There, the authorities apparently decided their entry should not boost Belarus’ national profile but influence a domestic audience. The state broadcaster, which nominates the country’s entry, chose a band called Galasy ZMesta (Voices with Thoughts) that earned notoriety last year after performing songs ridiculing the country’s opposition movement. The Eurovision song (hardly a classic) features a chorus promising: “I’ll teach you to dance to my tune, I’ll teach you to follow the line, I’ll make a joke of your sorrows.” It sounded a lot like this was intended as a warning to opposition protesters.
  • The Belarusian decision caused uproar on social media, and YouTube clips with the song ended up with more dislikes than likes. As a result, the European Broadcasting Union decided it would not accept the song, and asked Belarus to nominate either a different track or a different band.
  • Only Ukraine managed to select a song without scandal. Shum will sing a techno-folk track filmed against the backdrop of Chernobyl. It’s all performed in Ukrainian.

Why the world should care

Russia’s surprising choice of Eurovision entry suggests the country wants to be seen as progressive (and clearly understands what this means). In contrast, Belarus is talking purely to its own citizens, reminding them that the authorities have no interest in global opinion.