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Blog wars

File Photo of Dmitri Medvedev At Desk with Laptop and Hand to Chin
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As Russians prepare to vote in next month's State Duma elections, it is influential Internet bloggers who are playing a far stronger role than organized political parties in shaping the views of educated, middle-class voters, analysts say. And the discussion centers less on policy alternatives offered by various competing parties than on how to oppose the ruling United Russia party most effectively. "This is definitely because many educated, middle-class urban residents are thinking about what they should do on election day in the absence of a real choice between real parties," said Marina Litvinovich, a popular LiveJournal blogger and a renowned spin doctor who has worked for the Kremlin and for opposition parties.

Nowadays political discussion evolves mostly in social networks, and its participants agree that LiveJournal, which allows the posting of larger texts with photos and videos, is the platform best suited for it. Quite often, popular posts by prominent bloggers turn into mainstream media stories with a national reach.

It is no longer parties competing for the hearts and minds on the Internet ­ it is individual people, said Alexander Morozov, a popular LiveJournal blogger and the head of the Center for Media Studies, a Moscow think tank.

Another analyst, Alexei Mukhin, who heads the Center for Political Information, said that the LiveJournal community is drawn to good writers who talk about issues of common and immediate interest. "These talents made Alexei Navalny the creme de la creme of Russian bloggers, and as a party United Russia is incapable of competing with him and other similar personalities on the Internet," Mukhin said.

Navalny, a Yale-educated, anticorruption whistleblower with a nationalist streak, has called for voters to cast their ballots for any party other than United Russia, if only to draw attention to the party's uncontested control of the State Duma. Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and now an opposition leader, has called in his blog posts for voters to spoil their ballots, arguing that this is the only viable way for the public to register its disdain for the lack of genuine political choices.

A third popular approach, championed by several prominent bloggers, is just to ignore the vote altogether. Doing so, they argue, would undermine the legitimacy of the election as a whole.

Insiders and analysts agree that it is not just the lack of dedicated, talented writers with United Russia that explains its poor representation on the Runet. "The party does not feel that the Internet is its turf and prefers to campaign in a traditional Soviet way, by mobilizing voters with the help of administrative perks and pressure," Mukhin said.

Last week, the ComScore market research company ranked Russia first among 18 European countries surveyed in September for the number of Internet users, with the figure reaching 50.8 million. "About 30 million are involved in social networks and maybe about 5 percent of them read political blogs," Morozov said. And even this modest crowd would prefer to vent their emotions and ideas online than go and actually vote, he said.

Mukhin disagreed, however: As bloggers and the media shape the mood of the elites, with Putin no longer heading United Russia's ticket, regional authorities may not be that prepared to manipulate the vote in favor of the ruling party and thus irritate their constituencies, he said.

The readers of political blogs who decide to go to vote are more likely to cast their ballots for the liberal Yabloko party, Litvinovich said.

Yabloko has missed two terms in the Duma and is seen as the least Kremlin-controlled of the seven registered political parties in the race, she said.


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