THE BELL WEEKLY: Russia’s unlikely opposition hero

The Bell

Hello! This week we look at the Kremlin-approved liberal presidential candidate Boris Nadezhdin who suddenly became a hero for the Russian opposition. We also explore Russia's investment in a homemade Wikipedia.

Kremlin-approved liberal candidate becomes opposition hero

Only one anti-war candidate is vying for the right to get on the ballot paper for the March 2024 presidential election — Boris Nadezhdin, a veteran of second-tier Russian politics who served as an aide to Kremlin insider Sergei Kiriyenko 25 years ago. Everybody understands that Nadezhdin is a Kremlin spoiler, who will only be permitted to run as a way to demonstrate how negligible support for the opposition is, as the Kremlin sees it. Nonetheless, the queues of people waiting to sign petitions in support of Nadezhdin made waves on social media over the weekend and he has attracted support from exiled political leaders including Mikhail Khodorkovsky and colleagues of Alexei Navalny.

  • Boris Nadezhin has been the hottest topic in Russian political media over the last few days. A whole array of photos (1, 2, 3) showing long lines at his campaign offices in cities across Russia and beyond captivated the liberal media agenda, garnering enthusiastic commentary. “All over the world, huge lines formed at Boris Nadezhdin’s headquarters this weekend,” wrote Dozhd, for instance. The people were queuing to mark their names in support of Nadezhdin's presidential candidacy. To run for election, he has to secure at least 100,000 signatures from at least 40 of Russia's 89 regions (including the four Ukrainian territories Russia claims to have annexed) before a Jan. 31 deadline. 
  • Nadezhdin is the only candidate describing themselves as a “principled opponent of the president” and the sole voice calling for an end to the war in Ukraine. However, there is no doubt that his role is simply as a Kremlin spoiler — an approved candidate designed to sweep up a fraction of the genuine anti-Kremlin vote. In the previous election, blogger Ksenia Sobchak played the role, securing just 1.68%. By permitting a “liberal” candidate to garner a couple of percent, the Kremlin is able to dismiss the idea that there is any meaningful support for liberal politics in Russia.
  • Nadezhdin is a veteran professional politician who has held various positions in liberal Russian political parties since the early 1990s. In 1998 he was an aide to Boris Nemtsov when he was deputy prime minister, and then to Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, who now leads the Kremlin’s domestic political bloc inside the presidential administration. Between 1999-2003, Nadezhdin was a Duma deputy, representing Nemtsov's Union of Right Forces. Once Vladimir Putin started to consolidate his grip on power, Nadezhdin did not disappear into opposition obscurity like many. Instead, he became part of Kremlin-backed “liberal” spoiler parties such as “Right Cause” and “Party of Growth,” and featured as a liberal whipping boy in talkshows on state TV.
  • Nadezhdin is once again representing a Kremlin-created party, Civil Initiative, in this year’s contest. In Dec. 2023, he cleared the first barrier to participation in the election when the Central Election Committee registered the party’s nomination committee. Thus, the Kremlin has allowed Nadezhdin to pass one hurdle and move onto the next — collecting signatures from supporters — giving him permission to start a genuine nationwide campaign.
  • Despite the Kremlin's obvious control over its candidate, opposition figures including Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Ivan Zhdanov, head of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, are urging their supporters to back Nadezhdin. They say that backing Nadezhdin is a legal way for Russian voters to voice their opposition to the war while remaining inside Russia.

Why the world should care

To participate or not to participate? That is the question currently facing liberal-minded Russians when it comes to the election. If the answer is to participate, then “how?” becomes the logical follow-up question. Alexei Navalny has been repeatedly criticized for his “smart voting” system that encourages supporters to vote for Kremlin-mandated opposition parties and candidates in protest at the government. However, with genuine opposition figures either in jail or exile, there isn't much other choice: Russia-based opposition supporters have to support any anti-war initiatives that exist in the country.

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Russia invests in a homemade Wikipedia, in the hope of blocking the original

Russia launched the Ruwiki platform this week, the latest Wikipedia clone it hopes will secure an audience at home. The success of the project may determine the fate of Wikipedia itself inside Russia. The authorities would like to block the site, but can’t while it remains overwhelmingly popular throughout the country. The same story applies to YouTube.

  • Ruwiki, Russia’s possible answer to Wikipedia, started beta-testing this week. It currently has its own version of all 1.9 million Russian-language entries on Wikipedia, which will form the basis of a new online encyclopedia created by a separate team, as The Bell learned from a source familiar with the platform. This isn't a new idea: all Wikipedia clones in the world are developed this way. There are more than 1,000 of them worldwide, with about 150 in Russian. The Mediawiki engine is freely available for anyone to use, just like the encyclopedia’s entries and data. 
  • The project's creators call it a site for people seeking “balanced, accurate information.” In that sense it is less confrontational than other Russian wikis, which directly promise “protection against Russophobia and gay propaganda.” However, the future development of the project should see greater differences from Wikipedia emerge. This year the team is promising personalized content, podcasts and videos.
  • Ruwiki is not the first, but looks like the most serious attempt to create a Russian wiki clone. The project is led by Vladimir Medeyko, a former director of the non-profit Wikimedia RU, which is the Russian regional organization for Wikipedia. Other directors at Wikimedia RU accused Medeyko of a conflict of interests. Ruwiki has not admitted where the money is coming from for Ruwiki, but claims that its investors are not linked to the state. However, two sources told The Bell that the funding comes from leading state bank VTB. One said the bank is hoping for it to be a commercial success and that if the site gains traffic, it can generate advertising revenue.
  • The idea of “import substitution” for Wikipedia has been around for years. In 2010, Russia’s Press Ministry pledged to set up a rival project, called Znaniye (Knowledge) and in 2016, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev even approved a working group to create a Russian online encyclopedia. Since the start of the war, several projects (1, 2, З) have been unveiled, but none have proved popular.
  • A state-backed Wiki clone is needed in order to make it possible to sideline the original. The current Russian-language Wikipedia has about 12,000 regular editors, and many of them live outside of Russia and tend towards having opposition views. Russia’s register of banned sites already includes more than 120 Wikipedia articles, mostly to do with the war in Ukraine. If Ruwiki or another pro-Kremlin project can prove its worth, we can expect the original Wikipedia to be banned. Dmitry Peskov, for example, already talked about this as a possibility. At the moment, this is a long way off: Ruwiki has 261,000 visitors a month, compared with 130 million using Wikipedia’s Russian-language pages.
  • However, blocking Wikipedia in Russia could cause greater problems than blocking independent media sites. Like any other blocked site, Wikipedia will still be able to be read via a VPN. But it would be impossible to edit it from within Russia – due to frequent hacker attacks, VPNs and proxies are banned from editing Wikipedia. Thus, if Russia blocks the original, it will lose thousands of writers and editors based in Russia, leaving only Russian-speakers living outside of the country to write and edit Russian-language articles.

Why the world should care

Despite all the blocks and restrictions currently in place, it's impossible to seriously suggest that Russia is isolated online — certainly not in the way that China is, for instance. While being a long way off the Beijing model, the Kremlin is trying to walk down that path. Blocking YouTube and Wikipedia are the next two big steps.


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