Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Window on Eurasia: One-Third of the Heads of Russia’s Regions and Republics Now Has a Blog or Uses Social Networks

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 4 – Many commentators have focused on the ways blogs and social networks have played a role in helping opposition groups in Russia organize and get their message out, but far fewer have considered the ways government officials are using this new channel to communicate with their subordinates and the population of their federal subjects.

            An article posted online yesterday from the “Va Bank” newspaper considers how this channel is currently operating in Mari El and asks pointedly “does an official [in that Finno-Ugric republic of the Middle Volga] need a blog” to function effectively in the Russian political environment of today? (mariuver.wordpress.com/2012/12/03/blog-cino/#more-32584).

            The current “fashion of having one’s personal ‘pages’ on the Internet is completely understandable since these allow for the easy dissemination of information, the development of any theme and participation in discussions. Open access, simplicity and the opportunity to express one’s opinion” are things “many influential people from the ranks of politics” welcome.

            But “the epidemic” of interest in the Internet among officials “has reached such a point that this month” Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, “officially explained that representatives of the authorities, unlike simple mortals cannot use social networks for personal communications since all their communications are in some degree ‘official.’”

            So far, that warning does not appear to have led officials in the regions to stop doing what many other Russians are.  Among the heads of the federal subjects, the Mari portal notes, “every third has his own blog on the Internet,” and many use “Twitter or Livejournal, Vkontakte or Facebook.”

            But the situation in Mari El in this regards lags behind much of the rest of the Russian Federation.  There, according to this article, only the chief federal inspector for the republic, Roman Beresnev, represents an exception. And he is an active advocate of the online world for officials.

            “I often use social networks,” Beresnev says. “They not infrequently help guide me in my professional activity.  Thanks to Twitter, I can communicate my thoughts to a broad range of society, and I am in a position to see what my compatriots are saying and thinking.  This interaction allows me to react to the most discussed and consequently significant issues.”

            Elsewhere, officials are using this channel even more intensively. Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov has “20,000 friends” on Twitter (kavkaz.ge/2012/12/04/druzyami-ramzana-kadyrova-v-twitter-stali-dvadcat-tysyach-chelovek/). Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh is “one of the most active users of social networks” in his oblast. And Governor Valery Shantsev of Nizhny Novgorod has declared that “through his blog everyone can appeal to him directly.”

                Should officials in Mari El do the same, the portal asked. Natalya Uskova, editor of the blogger community of the 7x7-journal.ru, said that they would be well advised to try.  “For those with an official status, blogs beyond doubt open additional opportunities for obtaining information, exchanging opinions and feedback.” 

                Indeed, she said, “maintaining a blog is one of the forms of customary public activity which gives access” to officials. But some Russian officials may not want this. When “Va Bank” sought to learn whether republic head Leonid Markelov was thinking about doing so, the paper was told absolutely not.

            Sergey Loskutov, the head of the Mari El’s administration for social ties and information, responded that “we give out all information through the press, television, and the official portal of the government of Mari El.” He and his colleagues have no plans to start up blogs or make friends on Twitter.

            Nonetheless, at least for the foreseeable future, ever more officials in many parts of Russia are likely to join this trend. That will open many possibilities for communication not only between them and their populations but also among such officials, a development that could lead to the formation of new political groupings.

            At the very least, such blogs and Twitter accounts maintained by regional leaders now represent yet another place to track politics in Russia’s regions, and that in turn may be one of the reasons that Putin has backed away from Dmitry Medvedev’s support of computer literacy among officials and why some cautious officials don’t want to take the risk of going online.


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