How the Internet has Changed Karelia Since First Dial-Ups in 1997

Photo: Gleb Yarogovo and UpNorth

Staunton – Thanks to the help of Finnish friends, Petrozavodsk, the capital of Karelia, got dial up Internet service in 1997, even before Moscow did; and the links it has provided help explain the rise of the Karelian national movement since then, including the protests this week against the Moscow-imposed governor.

The Internet not only has allowed Karelians access to the larger Finnish world but has given them self-confidence in their own people and its rights to a better future. But after Vladimir Putin came to power, Moscow began to insist that Karelia was just “an ordinary Russian province,” according to Vadim Shtepa (facebook.com/vadim.shtepa?fref=nf).

In response, the regionalist says, the residents of his home city, Petrozavodsk or as he prefers to call it, Onegaborg, which when he was growing up had a genuine “capital” status and resembled Tallinn in its cleanliness and order, elected Galina Shirshina mayor over the pro-Kremlin candidate.

That was a remarkable turn of events, “unique” in Putin’s Russia, because unlike in the more familiar case of the mayoral outcome in Yekaterinburg, Shirshina is a fully-empowered mayor and not a figurehead over an administration controlled less by the voters than by an appointed city manager.

That Internet-driven event continues to echo in Karelia. Last week, more than 1,000 people came into the streets of Petrozavodsk to protest the arrest of two close allies of the mayor by officials loyal to the Moscow-imposed governor (See “Karelia ‘First Region in Russia’ Where Local People Demand Ouster of Republic Leader” (April 3, 2015) at windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2015/04/karelia-first-region-in-russia-where.html).

The participants in the demonstration carried signs reading “Only weak men are afraid of strong women,” a reference to the fact that the mayor and both of her arrested allies are female, “Down with judicial arbitrariness,” Freedom for Saletskaya and Kornilova,” “Return the mother to her children,” and “Never Fear: Kudilaynin will have to answer for this.”

All of these were quickly disseminated by various websites – see pictures and texts at7×7-journal.ru/item/56626, a site directed not only at Karelia but at all the regions of the Russian Federation, even as social sites in Karelia itself continued to press for the retirement of Khudilaynen and all other senior Moscow-imposed officials in Karelia.

Not surprisingly, these officials have struck back, not only harassing participants in last week’s demonstration but doing what they can to reduce reporting about it on key Karelian sites. Their efforts violate freedom of speech, but they are more important in another way: they show how difficult if not impossible it is for Moscow to control the virtual world.

In a post on Politika-Karelia.ru, Anatoly Tsygankov describes both what the authorities have done to one of the most important portals in Karelia to try to limit the spread of information about the protests and why their efforts have gone largely for naught at least so far (politika-karelia.ru/?p=15929).

As the demonstration was taking place, Valery Potashov, the editor of “Vesti Karelia,” posted reports about it, and within a few minutes, his site was subjected to a denial of service attack just as had been the “Stolitsa na Onego” portal a few weeks ago, according to Tsygankov.

When “Stolitsa” was attacked, its owners complained to the republic MVD and demanded that a criminal case be launched. But there was no real hope the interior ministry would do so given that it is highly probable that the hackers in this case were from its ranks or those of other government agencies.

Given that “Vesti Karelia” has the same owner and the same editorial policies as “Stolitsa,” the same scenario was repeated – but with a slightly different outcome. Its editors complained to the authorities, but the authorities did not go after the hackers. Instead, the authorities made demands on those who had brought the complaint.

Valery Potashov was told that “if he wants his site to go online again, then he must edit his text” about the demonstration.  Not wanting to be shut out completely from the Internet media space, he agreed and took out everything that might have been offensive to Khudilaynen and his team.

But that was not the end of the story: Potashov’s original story, one very critical of the authorities and supportive of the demonstrators was posted on another site, “Lesny portal Karelii” (http://forest-karelia.ru/?id=1469), even as his redacted story went on “Vesti Karelii” (vesti.karelia.ru/news/u_zdaniya_pravitel_stva_karelii_proshla_samaya_massovaya_akciya_protesta_za_poslednie_gody1/).

On the one hand, the comparison of the two shows just how heavy-handed the censorship now is in Karelia. But on the other, it shows how impossible it is for the authorities to block more accurate reporting. Why? Because it isn’t as if the “Lesny portal Karelii” is at odds with “Vesti Karelii.” Potashov owns and edits them both.

And as Tsygankov notes in conclusion, this is not the first time that something the pro-Moscow authorities didn’t like on “Vesti Karelii” has been taken down there only to quickly find an audience on “Lesny portal Karelii.”

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