Archive for February, 2010

Getting Punk’d in Russia

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

Ashton Kutcher was not prepared for this. When he arrived with a U.S. State Department technology delegation last week, he expected the screaming teenage girls, the journalists fighting for interviews, heck, he even expected the cold. But sitting with a group of Russian technology executives on Sunday night, the Punk’d star let loose. “When you get into a room without the Russian government controlling the room, the room becomes so vibrant!” he said. “We’ve had to fight to get people to talk openly.”

Kutcher was here, along with a handful of high profile tech execs — eBay (EBAY) CEO John Donahoe (who just launched a Russian version of the site), Cisco (CSCO) CTO Padmasree Warrior, Mozilla Foundation head Mitchell Baker, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, and venture capitalist Esther Dyson — as part of a week-long diplomatic trip to get start ups, students, NGOs and even Kremlin advisors to exchange ideas on the wider uses of social networking technology. In one week, the group set out to help their Russian counterparts figure out new uses for social media, open source browsers, and online garage sales that can help modernize an economy, build a stronger civil society, and help President Dmitry Medvedev with his plans to build a Russian Silicon Valley near Moscow.

Instead, the techies, business people (and a movie star), discovered that sunny Silicon Valley-style optimism and the belief that knowledge conquers all, is a hard brand to franchise in Russia.

The Kremlin is in the midst of a much-publicized innovation push: Its top brass traveled to MIT recently to ask scientists how to build up Russia’s innovation economy. But, as chief strategist Vladislav Surkov recently made clear in an interview with a Russian newspaper, modernization will be “authoritarian modernization.” That is, it will have a distinctly Russian flavor, and it would bring none of the political reforms that would create the kind of breathing space so crucial to Silicon Valley.

So what would it bring? Well, beer pong, which Howcast CEO Jason Liebman taught to high schoolers in Novosibirsk. And altered expectations. “My image of ‘being in Siberia’ is forever changed by this trip … this place has real potential,” tweeted eBay CEO John Donahoe, who had just been cajoled by fellow delegate and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey into starting his own Twitter account.

Such connection-building and knowledge-sharing with Russian counterparts are all part of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s hazily defined notion of 21st-century statecraft, according to Jared Cohen, a member of Clinton’s planning staff who put together this trip and others like it. (Cohen described the trip in a tweet as: “facilitating peeps-2-peeps”). And when the delegation met with Surkov and Arkady Dvorkovich, another Kremlin advisor on modernization, they talked excitedly about e-governance and transparency. “By no means are we perfect on these issues, and there was no posturing, or lecturing, or badgering of any kind,” White House CTO Aneesh Chopra told me. “Russia is not an aid project,” Cohen says. Instead, this was one more push of the reset button.

But the delegates quickly discovered that Russia’s famous technological talent often finds few outlets at home. Because of the twin heritage of the Soviet criminalization of independent commercial activity and the brazen plunder of the 1990s, businessmen are reviled to this day and entrepreneurship isn’t mythologized in Russia as it is in the United States.

So when Shervin Pishevar, CEO of Social Gaming Networks, asked a group of high schoolers in Novosibirsk how many of them wanted to start businesses, very few hands went up. “It’s as if they thought it was impossible,” he says. And because Russian society has traditionally been very atomized, the strong mentorship community of Silicon Valley is missing, too.

Social atomization – and, consequently, a cementing of old mentalities — was something the group struggled with so frequently as to make it cliché. At the Sunday night meeting with Russian tech leaders, Cohen and Kutcher were baffled to hear that the tech companies had never sat down with Russian NGOs – most of them antediluvian operations – to explain what technological tools were available to them. The problem was lost in translation: Cohen and Kutcher were there to help Russians build a civil society, while everything in Russia was designed to break it down. The Russian techies in the room instantly protested that sitting down with NGOs would compromise the neutrality of their technologies, a banner behind which they hide from the ever-encroaching hand of the state.

And, by the end of the trip, the delegates who had not yet done business in Russia ran up against the full reality of the state of corruption in Russia — a recent study showed that one in three Russians had paid bribes, totaling as much as $318 billion annually, and Transparency International ranked the country 146th out of 180 in its corruption ranking — in their last meeting of the trip, with anti-corruption NGOs. The corruption fighters painted a grim picture of bribe-taking, wanton arrests, and intimidation. Kutcher, who had been broadcasting the panel live from his iPhone, was apparently not expecting such darkness. As he shut off the live stream, you could hear him groan, “That was the most brutal meeting…”

Esther Dyson, who has been a prolific investor in Russia for a decade, was one of the few not surprised, though she says she tried to let the more optimistic delegates form their own views. “They kept saying I was so negative. But I’m as idealistic as anyone. I’m just realistic about the challenges,” she told me. (“You have to be an optimist to keep investing here for 20 years,” she added.)

As a final illustration of Russian reality, the group went from the horror show of the anti-corruption meeting to a lavish farewell dinner sponsored by Digital Sky Technologies, an investor in Facebook and Zynga, which is widely believed to have close ties to the Kremlin. Everyone sat at different tables and, for the first time the whole trip, there was no substantive discussion.

“Well,” says Dyson, hesitating. “The fish was delicious.”

Getting Punk’d in Russia [FORTUNE]

The Revolution Will Definitely Not Be Televised

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

Because the 31st article of the Russian constitution guarantees the freedom of assembly, the Russian opposition has taken to gathering by the statue of the revolutionary poet Mayakovsky on Triumphalnaya Ploshchad in the center of Moscow every time a month has a 31st day. A routine has developed: Every 31st, the Moscow city government withholds permission for the assembly, claiming they’ve already scheduled something for that time. (On Jan. 31, it was “Winter Delights.”) Every time, the opposition — about a hundred aged liberals still clinging to the hopes of the early Yeltsin era — gather anyway. And every time, the police and, occasionally, the special forces show up and arrest people, some of whom happen to be famous opposition figures who know how to get in touch with the press and make the mayorality look rather foolish. (On Dec. 31, for instance, the police made a splash of international proportions by arresting 82 year-old human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeeva. In January, they ran the second she screamed. “I guess there was an order not to let the old lady die, lest there be an international scandal,” she said.)

Apart from provoking the cops into arresting old ladies, however, the protesters don’t have much to show for their 31st-article gatherings, which are replicated in a few other places across the country. Partly, this is the opposition’s fault. To say that they don’t have a coherent or realistic platform or a leader would severely understate the matter. They have been so marginalized by the state that, in the best traditions of Russian political opposition, they have taken to utopian squabbling — the Communists with the nationalists, the liberals with the Kremlin drop-outs — while United Russia keeps consolidating power through hard-headed yet sophisticated pragmatism.

But it’s also due to the fact that, marginalized and tiny as the protests are, most Russians don’t even know they exist.

Take this weekend. On Saturday, the day before January’s 31st-article protests, more than 10,000 people gathered for a demonstration in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, a little island of Russia wedged on the Baltic Sea coast between Poland and Lithuania. In a country where 50 to 100 people count as a major opposition protest, this is not only huge, it’s unprecedented. By contrast, the biggest protest in contiguous Russia in recent memory, those in Vladivostok at the height of the financial crisis in December 2008, drew only 1,000 people. The event organizers claim up to 12,000 protesters, but even with 10,000 people and cars spread across a parking lot spanning three hectares, the protests were unusual.

This was true not just because of the scale but because of the content. Originally, the smattering of opposition groups gathered to protest a hike in the transportation tax and import duties on cars. Cars and pensions remain perhaps the only reason Russians will take to the streets — when the Kaliningrad government raised transport taxes last year, thousands protested — so it was a surprise to many when the target became the government itself. People showed up with banners demanding the return of the direct election of governors, something the Kremlin shelved in 2004, ostensibly to fight terrorism. Some banners expressed the wish to see United Russia either tossed in the garbage or flushed down the toilet. Another banner read, “You’ve gotten fat, stolen a lot, now how about doing some time?” According to the organizers, over 5,000 people signed a petition demanding not only the cancellation of the transport tax, but the abdication of the local governor, his entire government, and even Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Nor was this an isolated provincial event. Members of officially sanctioned parties came, with many Moscow politicians flying in just to make a showing: the Communist Party of the Russian Federation was there, as was the liberal Yabloko, the Patriots of Russia, and the right-wing nationalist LDPR. “How much do you have to torture the people of Kaliningrad for me to see all these parties gathered at one meeting?” asked liberal Solidarity leader Boris Nemtsov from the grandstand as the crowed cheered. (The protests, an apparent shock to the Kremlin, seemed to have been coordinated with the Moscow opposition.)

It was the biggest Russian protest since the chaos of the early 1990s — but if, like most Russians, you got most of your news from television, you wouldn’t have even known about it.

“Russian television didn’t cover this at all,” said a very offended Ilya Yashin, a young and up-and-coming Solidarity politician who flew to Kaliningrad with Nemtsov. “At all.”

Relatively few Russians read newspapers anymore, and, according to one estimate, only 2 million people — less than 1.5 percent — listen to the opposition Ekho Moskvy radio station or read the essentially free press online, where the Kaliningrad protests were thoroughly covered. The figures are even more dire the farther you get from Moscow.

Television is the media that matters and, for that reason, as has been widely reported, it is owned by the state outright or through government-friendly companies. And not only do the heads of the various TV channels meet regularly with Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin ideologist, the rank and file of the TV stations are already well-trained in the art of self-censorship.

“If it’s about the transportation tax, that’s one thing,” said a reporter for NTV, a state-owned channel, who had not even heard that anything had happened in Kaliningrad before he received a phone call from Foreign Policy. “If it’s against the government, that’s material for the dust bin. Even softer themes don’t go through.”

Only two television channels, REN-TV and its subsidiary, St. Petersburg’s Channel 5, made mention of the event, the latter as a 30-second read-through about a protest by “thousands of car owners.” REN-TV, which portrayed the protest as one focused more on living conditions, still managed to show a lot, including a man saying the government was lying. With an audience four-to-five times smaller than those of the main federal channels, REN-TV is allowed to be more critical of the state, thereby doing double-duty as steam valve and window dressing.

Everywhere else there was silence, which to some observers seemed like unnecessary caution. When car owners in Valdivostok protested against the import duties on Japanese cars at the end of 2008, Russian television was also silent. But that was at the beginning of the economic crisis, which, many speculated at the time, could have toppled the Putin government. “Now that the crisis has more or less stabilized,” says political analyst Masha Lipman, “the government feels much more confident; it can act much more rationally.” Moreover, the opposition is still in disarray and without any real chance of bringing down the Kremlin, or even nipping at its heels. “If you look at the polls, you see a full readiness to adjust” to life under the current system, Lipman says. “You can’t say that the people are ripening and the movement will grow and grow. In this situation, you don’t need to lie — it’s just how you shape the story.”

But inside the media the habit to filter and self-censor is so strong that any such story is instinctively suppressed. “This wasn’t just a few people gathering on Triumphalnaya,” says Arina Borodino, who writes about television for Kommersant, the most widely-read Russian daily. “They sent in the regional governor, the United Russia representative, the state prosecutor. The government takes this very seriously, and you want them to show it on TV?”

And so the Kaliningrad protests, with its thousands of discontented activists, its football fields of parked cars, will pass by unnoticed.

“There was no way for society to find out about this,” Yashin, the Solidarity politician, says. “And society has gotten used to this. They see TV as entertainment, as educational; as anything other than a source of information.”

He’s right. However small the revolution, if it’s not televised, it doesn’t even exist.

The Revolution Will Definitely Not Be Televised [Foreign Policy]