The deadly October 31 bombing of a local Federal Security Services (FSB) office in Arkhangelsk by 17-year-old student Mikhail Zhlobitsky, a member of an online anarchist community (Meduza.io, October 31; Crimerussia.com, November 1), underscored two serious threats facing the Russian authorities. First, the bomber’s identity has again highlighted an apparent growing disenchantment among Russian youth fueled by the country’s pervasive corruption, lawlessness and heavy-handedness of the security services. Increasingly, this disenchantment threatens to intensify into more widespread radicalism (see Commentaries, November 9). Second, the FSB’s inability to prevent last month’s tragic incident in Archangelsk points to a clear disjointedness between key elements engrained in Russia’s new Information Security Doctrine, adopted in 2016 (see EDM, December 16, 2016), and their practical implementation. Nevertheless, in spite of these apparent structural problems, the Russian authorities are likely to respond by further tightening their grip over the domestic segment of the Internet via the introduction of further restrictions and stiffened control. Additionally, Russian law enforcement is likely to ramp up a witch hunt for covert “extremist” cells and communities operating online and inside the country.
On November 2, parliamentary deputies from the ruling United Russia political party prepared a draft law on formalizing the status and broadening the responsibilities of the so-called “cyber squads” (kyberdruzhini). These state-sponsored/coordinated “volunteer” groups are tasked with identifying “cyber threats”—defined as “information that includes war propaganda; the incitement of national, racial or religious hatred and enmity; and other information prohibited from distribution”—and passing this information on to law enforcement agencies (RIA Novosti, November 2, 2018). According to the pro-Kremlin party, granting more power to the cyber squads will give qualitatively new impetus to the practical implementation of a grassroots system of tracking and preventing extremism—one of the key elements advocated in Russia’s Information Doctrine. The ultimate success of the initiative, however, seems rather questionable: in addition to the already existing cluster of similar entities, quantitative increase on its own will have little effect if misuse thereof continues at the same pace. At this juncture, three examples should be mentioned:
– The League of Internet Safety (Liga Bezopasnogo Interneta—LBI), an entity created in 2011 by Russian “Orthodox oligarch” Konstantin Malofeev (sanctioned by the West for sponsoring the outbreak of violence in Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014), was conceived as a means to censure the domestic segment of the Internet. The LBI gave rise to the emergence of the all-Russian youth movement Cyber Squads (which currently has “volunteers from 29 regions of the Russian Federation, as well as the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States], and countries of Eastern and Western Europe”) and so-called “Cossack cyber squads,” trained under the roof of the Moscow State University of Technology and Management (First Cossack University) (Interfax, November 11, 2016). As the main result of their activities, a “black list of websites” was formed, allowing Russian security services within a year to track and shut down 14,000 websites accused of spreading extremist information (Securitylab.ru, November 1, 2013). Furthermore, according to the League of Internet Safety’s director, Denis Davydov, “The activists of the LBI have been able to detect and track down five million Russian youth actively involved in destructive [sic] webpages and social networks… All related data was transferred to the security services” (NeRadio, November 7, 2018). Nonetheless, many commentators are rather skeptical about the LBI’s declarative goals: according to one argument, by forging this and similar projects, the Russian authorities are merely seeking ways to expand the state’s control over the domestic segment of the Internet (Lenta.ru, November 20, 2012).
– The MediaGuard (Mediagvardia), a pet-project of The Young Guard of United Russia that emerged in 2013 and was awarded with a Runet Prize in 2014 (BBC News—Russian service, November 2, 2018). Its results, aside from widely publicized xenophobic and anti-homosexual campaigns, remain rather meager;
– The E-Center, created in 2008 as the main department of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs and focused on tackling extremism. The entity has gained an infamous reputation for harsh behavior that included physical abuse and torture of “those suspected of extremism” (BBC News—Russian service, July 17).
The authorities’ strengthened anti-extremist policies and increased control over the domestic Internet have led to rather paradoxical consequences. In 2018, despite the dramatic growth in legal cases brought against “extremists on social networks” and a “skyrocketing” number of online extremist accounts and radical content being shut down (BBC News—Russian service, November 2), the overall number of groups advocating violence, school shootings or mass/serial murders and ritual crimes has quintupled in the past half year (Znak.com, November 9). The establishment of regional government policies since 2017 to monitor schoolchildren and students’ political moods clearly has had no effect on this rise in violent acts involving Russian youths (Znak.com, November 1).
Most likely, the inability of the Russian authorities to prevent tragedies similar to the ones that occurred in Arkhangelsk and earlier in Kerch (a “Columbine-style” school shooting incident—see EDM, October 22), has little to do with a lack resources or inadequate legal powers given to law enforcement and Internet-monitoring organs (a dramatic increase of such powers was proposed by the LBI immediately after the Kerch shooting). Leading Russian practitioners dealing with youth deviant behavior share this belief. For instance, the head of the project Secure Childhood, Anna Levchenko, stated that the predicament stems from “how the results of the monitoring are subsequently used.” She also pointed to the fact that “many employees of law enforcement and security-related bodies are merely interested in career promotions” (Znak.com, November 1). Meanwhile, the director of the movement For Human Rights, Lev Ponomarev, sees the problem originating with the authorities’ “totalitarian and Soviet-style methods that do not comply with [modern Russia’s] completely different reality,” adding, “unnecessarily aggressive behavior of the Russian authorities does nothing but radicalize Russian youth, nurturing internal protest among them” (Rosbalt, November 5).
This being said, it is highly unlikely that the Russian authorities will take into consideration these or similar opinions. The new proposed legislation granting law enforcement agencies and state-controlled grassroots “volunteer groups” more powers points to the fact that the state sees the problem as rooted in inadequate government control over the domestic information space—nothing else. As for further witch hunts: on November 6, a court in Kaliningrad detained a person “sympathetic to the Arkhangelsk terrorist” (RBC, November 6). More such cases are sure to follow.