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Opinion

The offline effect of online activism in Russia

Blogger Navalny uses open access to information around the world to find illegal properties of Russian politicians.

Last Modified: 18 Jul 2013 05:34
Masha Egupova

Masha Egupova is a freelance journalist from Vladivostok, a city in the Russian Far East on the Pacific coast. She writes about social, political and media issues in Russia, Hungary and Egypt as well as her hometown. A keen traveller, she divides her time between Cairo, Bangkok and Budapest.
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Russian anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny was able to expose politicians and uncover their secrets with the help of different journalists and lawyers [Reuters]

There are times when you think that everything is hopeless and your country is going to hell. You lose faith in social activism and non-violent protesting. You think that the regime will always win and people will be ruled in accordance with some authoritarian set of rules. Watching the news or reading some updates from the internet would only make you feel depressed.

Modern Russia has to go through a clash between an outdated system of old-fashioned rulers and its liberal opponents. The country and its citizens are bound to stay together. Nonetheless, there is no visible compromise between the two sides. In a situation when the society is far ahead of its redundant bureaucratic state the citizens are left with three choices: to leave the country, ignore the situation or fight back. A lot of educated and ambitious young people have already left the country, yet they keep monitoring the news from abroad. Many activists, who decided to stay in the country, use modern communication tools to fight back. Online activism is on the rise.

Some critics of the online activism point out that offline effect of such action is insignificant. Indeed it is easy to be politically active online and never attend a single demonstration. It is easy to share and "like" some news on Facebook or retweet something. And it is incredibly difficult to actually get out of your comfort zone and go on a protest when you know that you may get arrested.

Sometimes you don't need to leave your living room to achieve a change - all you need is some dedication. Russian political scene has one bright persona who is able to use online technologies to achieve viable offline changes. One of the most prominent opposition leaders in Russia, Alexey Navalny, is known for his successful political escapades against the regime. He particularly uses online activism to reveal dirty secrets of Russian politicians and their corporations.

Navalny and his team of lawyers simply use open access to information in different databases in Canada, the US, Israel, Russia and other countries. Russian authorities have to declare all the properties they own. These declarations are publicly available. Many prefer to ignore this requirement, as it would only raise unnecessary questions. The fact that politicians get kickbacks to buy luxurious property abroad surprises no one. Russian officials are not allowed to hold a dual citizenship or own property of suspicious nature. Officials should also provide a proof that their properties is of a legit nature. Alexey Navalny does not do anything extraordinary, he simply searches for undeclared houses and business of Russian politicians abroad. 

"Simple access to public data can make miracles if an activist knows what he's looking for." 

Most recently, he exposed MP Vladimir Pehtin, who failed to declare several items of expensive property in Miami. Navalny found documents confirming that Pehtin purchased a house worth $1,275,000 in April 2012, yet he never indicated this and other properties in the annual declaration. That's why Navalny called attention to this fact in an attempt to initiate legal proceedings against Pehtin. Clearly, Pehtin denied these accusations and claimed that these houses belong to his son. Nonetheless, Navalny provided a scan of Pehtin's signature on the ownership papers to refute his claims.

Bloggers and netizens found this news amusing - they started reposting Navalny's posts, thus causing an online avalanche. Vladimir Pehtin received a massive media attention and had no choice but to resign, even though United Russia party backed him up. This unprecedented case encouraged other activists to investigate politicians and expose their secrets. It basically proved that online activism has viable offline change if you know how to use and search for data.

Navalny's persistent nature forced him to go after other politicians. He denounced senator Vitaly Malkin for having dual citizenship and undeclared property in Canada. Navalny found documents confirming the fact that Malkin has changed his name to Avihur Ben Bar when he got an Israeli citizenship. The senator also owns an apartment block in Canada and was declined an entry visa to Canada due to allegedly illegal nature of his income. Navalny provided a list of official documents proving his point. As a result, this news went viral and led to the resignation of senator Malkin.

The blogger was able to expose politicians and uncover their secrets with the help of journalists and lawyers. The great thing about these cases is that anyone can double-check the authenticity of the provided documents and replicate the same process. Simple access to public data can make miracles if an activist knows what he's looking for.

In some cases you don't even need to leave your house in order to tickle the nerves of the government. You can still be politically active even if you live abroad. Navalny and his team know how to make the Kremlin nervous. It is obvious that corruption cannot be eradicated in one day, yet Navalny's initiatives help in tackling this disease. These small victories make people believe that things are not as bad as they may seem and the regime can be affected by these campaigns.

Masha Egupova is a freelance journalist from Vladivostok, a city in the Russian Far East on the Pacific coast. She writes about social, political and media issues in Russia, Hungary and Egypt as well as her hometown. A keen traveller, she divides her time between Cairo, Bangkok and Budapest. She also writes a travelog about her experiences in each country.

Follow her on Twitter: @Mashutsa

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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