Russia Watch: From Ukraine to Georgia to Russia, the internet breaks the information rules of the old USSR

In August of last year, Mikhail Saakashivili was cruising to what looked like an easy election victory. Today, he travels Europe, cut loose from Georgian politics after one decade as president.

What made the difference? Just before last year’s parliamentary elections, video clips circulated like wildfire on the Internet showing Georgian prison guards sodomizing prisoners.

Two weeks ago, Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych seemed to be weathering protests over his decision to back away from signing a free trade pact with Europe. Then, all of a sudden, 1 million protesters were on the streets. They moved like a human river through Kyiv, the nation’s capital.

What made the difference? Video clips had circulated like wildfire of riot police clubbing peaceful protesters in the pre-dawn darkness.

In the old days – three years ago – prison guards could sodomize prisoners and riot police could savagely attack sleeping protesters – and get away with it. Now, everyone has a mobile phone with a camera. And that is changing the political rules.

Within hours of the riot police attack on protesters, Ukrainian journalist Mustafa Nayyem posted on YouTube a video of the riot police rioting. Within 48 hours, the clip had been viewed more than 780 000 times. Literally overnight, a Sunday afternoon protest march that was expected to draw 10 000 people, drew one million.

But Sunday night, Ukrainian authorities were still on autopilot, still playing by the old rules. Riot police rioted again, whacking everyone in sight, included 43 journalists. This violence generated a fresh round of videos, a fresh round of outrage, and an opposition movement that dug in its heels in a fortified downtown encampment.

Afghan-Ukrainian journalist Mustafa Nayyem put out the first call for protesters on Facebook. Later he posted a police brutality video on YouTube, drawing almost 800 000 views in 48 hours. VOA photo: James Brooke
Afghan-Ukrainian journalist Mustafa Nayyem put out the first call for protesters on Facebook. Later he posted a police brutality video on YouTube, drawing almost 800 000 views in 48 hours. VOA photo: James Brooke

I caught up with Nayyem on Wednesday and asked him what had changed. He said the conflict in Ukraine is between the Soviet-era TV generation and today’s Internet generation.

“It is not a conflict between West and East,” he said referring to Ukraine’s rough linguistic divide, between Ukrainian speakers in the West and Russian speakers in the East. “It’s between the new generation and old generation.”

Nayyem said that president Yanukovych, aged 63, believes that by controlling television and newspapers, he controls the thinking of the nation’s “Soviet generation.”

“But if you cannot hide things anymore,” Nayyem continued. “Even if you try on TV, the Internet will show it. This gap between TV and reality does not work in favor of Yanukovych. This gap works against Yanukovych. It does not work against people because people know everything.” (Public TV) and (Together TV) are two new Ukrainian Internet television channels that are streaming live coverage from the protests.

Nayyem, an Afghan-Ukrainian, is credited with jump starting the protest movement by sending out Facebook appeals for protesters on November 21, the day the government backed away from signing the pact with the European Union. That evening, about 1500 people responded to his appeal.

Nayyem says he chose Facebook, over its Russia-based rivals, Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki, because Facebook in Ukraine is used by the elite, the opinion makers.

Facebook, he said, is democratic because it allows for instant, horizontal communication among people who trust each other and who consider themselves social equals. By contrast, television is better suited for the kind of Soviet-style, top down, vertical communication that politicians of Yanukovych’s generation are comfortable with.

No one knows how Ukraine’s uprising will play out.

In Russia, an internet-fueled opposition movement gathered tens of thousands of people into the streets of Moscow in the winter of 2012. But President Putin held the day, winning reelection on the shoulders of the TV tribe, still the nation’s majority.

In Ukraine, Yanukovych may be able to restore order in time to mount a serious candidacy in the March 2015 presidential elections.

And police injured almost 80 people last Saturday on the Maidan, or protest square, the government now is showing that it can adapt.

On Wednesday, Ukraine’s Interior Minister formally ordered police to not use violence against protesters. And on Thursday, Interfax news wire carried this news flash: UKRAINIAN PROSECUTOR GENERAL’S OFFICE CALLS INTERIOR MINISTER FOR QUESTIONING REGARDING DISPERSING MAIDAN.

(Police at the Independence Square in Kyiv on the evening of November 29; several hours later, they would violently clash with protesters. Photo: Ivan Bandura/ 



James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.