TIRASPOL | An unusual event took place 7 July in Tiraspol, the chief city of Transdniester, when a group of protesters gathered on a park square and called for a stop to the obstruction of websites critical of the government. It marked the first public demonstration against the administration of President Yevgeny Shevchuk since he came to power 18 months ago, pledging a more open style of governing in the unrecognized quasi-state of fewer than half a million inhabitants.
The speakers at the authorized event, however, struggled to make themselves heard to a crowd of about 200 since there was no electricity to power the PA system. Other visitors to the square that late Sunday morning listened to a military band concert, enjoyed the children’s play area, and watched the procession of Hare Krishna devotees, all of which were given permits for the same time slot.
Opposition politicians Andrey Safonov, left, and Anatoly Dirun address spectators at the 7 July demonstration in Tiraspol. Photo by Dmitri Romanovski.
As military-looking men in plain clothes looked on from various parts of the park, opposition politicians and free-speech advocates demanded an end to the blockage of 10 websites that have gone silent since late last year.
“These websites were closed down without any explanation or court decisions. This has set back our civil society by two or three years. If the authorities want to regulate these web resources they have to set up a legal framework and act only through court decisions,” said Anatoly Dirun, one of the rally’s organizers and an opposition member of the Supreme Soviet, the Transdniestrian legislature.
One site, Transdniestrian Social Forum (PSF), was closed down by its administrator in May, while the rest – independent news sites, opposition sites, and discussion forums – remain blocked and inaccessible to customers of the territory’s dominant Internet provider, Interdnestrcom, although they can be accessed from elsewhere.
At least, Dirun said, by scheduling other events for the same time, evidently an attempt to drown out the protest, the authorities showed they have taken note of public discontent over the obstruction of the sites.
One onlooker who said he had been a user of PSF agreed. Such an event would have been unthinkable under the rule of autocratic President Igor Smirnov, the loser in the 2011 presidential race, he said.
“So I think this is a good sign and the authorities will come to their senses and allow people to communicate unhampered,” said the man, who like others interviewed at the scene did not want to give his full name.
Another man said the silenced forums – which include plenty of anonymous scuttlebutt and scurrilous accusations – were useful “despite the gossip” that appears on them.
Still, he was unimpressed by the demonstration. “I don’t think today’s protest has anything to do with freedom of speech. It’s just a way for marginal politicians to promote themselves,” said the man, who gave the name Artiom.
Another passer-by, Valeria, a student, backed the authorities.
“I support the shutdown of these forums because a person’s freedom of speech ends when the private life, honor, dignity, and business reputation of another person begins. I am for respectful communication, not anonymous offending,” she said.
As the operators and users of the websites continue to ask why and by whose order they were blocked, questions have arisen about the Shevchuk administration’s respect for what the new president himself soon after taking office called “the principle of transparency, for our people to see, know, and understand what we are doing.”
Ironically, Shevchuk exploited the digital arena during the 2011 election campaign, when he scored an unexpected win over two favored candidates including Smirnov, who had run the territory for 20 unchallenged years since it seceded from Moldova.
The clampdown on independent websites is only part of the administration’s ambition to consolidate state control over the media, former Foreign Minister Vladimir Yastrebchak charges. Media analysts say the lack of a regulatory framework gives the authorities a free hand to act against inconvenient websites.
Dmitry Goncharenko ran Transdniester Social Forum, a site that attracted tens of thousands of unique daily hits, and he said his and other online forums were the germ around which civil society was growing in the absence of independent, mainstream media.
The wave of site blockages began with two news sites, Dniester.ru and Tiras.ru, late last year. The opposition Rodina (Motherland?) party’s site was blocked in April, and seven others including PSF went down in May.
Goncharenko said high officials were frequent visitors to PSF. Usually anonymously, officials participated in discussions with ordinary users, he said, and in certain cases such direct communication helped resolve issues discussed online.
“The reaction of real-life authorities to Internet discussions opened people’s minds. Users began to feel that they are not just voters, but have the power to influence authority here and now. And they liked it,” he said.
He acknowledged that many government critics used the blocked forums to smear officials and spread gossip about their private lives. Shevchuk, a frequent target of abuse, denounced the sites as “anonymous trash piles.”
“There are a lot of planted articles on these forums, although there is useful information as well,” Shevchuk commented on his Facebook page.
The chairman of the governing Vozrozhdenie (Revival) party and a close friend of Shevchuk, Andrey Sipchenko, denies that the president or anyone with the authority to do so ordered the websites to be blocked. He called the protest populist and accused Dirun, chief spin doctor of the oppositionist, pro-Russian Obnovlenie (Renewal) party, of running a dirty campaign during the 2011 election.
“After five years of crap being poured on us by these websites, Shevchuk has a pretty relaxed attitude toward them. They’re nothing but anonymous slander. Everything should be signed with a real name,” Sipchenko said.
In the absence of an official explanation for the banning of the websites, some point the finger at Shevchuk and other officials who they say can act at will against critical websites.
“Shevchuk decided that the forum should be closed and transmitted this message to me through the KGB. So I closed it down,” said Goncharenko, who had previously recounted a visit from the KGB on Facebook.
The administrator of the opposition news website Dniester.ru, Roman Konoplev, also blames the KGB for the blocking of that site, which has been unavailable to Interdnestrcom customers since November.
“The secret services decided that my comparison of Shevchuk with a donkey was sufficient grounds for persecution,” Konoplev said.
The site was first hit by a denial-of-service attack in an attempt to overwhelm it, he said. Then a counterfeit site appeared with “red herring” articles attributed to him, with the presumed aim of discrediting Dniester.ru.
“This was still ineffective, so the administration blocked the site through the Internet provider,” he said.
Konoplev said he fled Transdniester for an Arabian Gulf state last year after learning the authorities were planning to arrest him.
Spokespeople for the presidential administration and the KGB said their offices had nothing to do with blocking the websites. One of few officials to even admit the sites were blocked, Communication, Information, and Mass Media Service head Yevgeny Zubov defended the decision to silence them. He told the Moldovan news site Kommersant.md that the sites were “cesspits” whose anonymous users “throw mud while hiding behind freedom of speech.”
He did not say who was responsible for the decision.
Asked by a reporter if his service was involved in the action against the websites, Zubov said the question was irrelevant since the agency deals only with the mass media, not Internet forums. He suggested consulting the Internet for information or asking the presidential administration, adding he was not sure if they would answer because “they don’t have a department for forums.”
At a 24 June meeting of the Public Chamber, an oversight body that analyzes legislation and monitors the government and legislature, Zubov charged that content on the blocked sites was aimed at destroying Transdniestrian sovereignty.
Customs Committee head Gennady Kuzmichev concurred, telling the chamber that the forums were closed in order to protect Transdniester’s information security. He attributed much of their content to disaffected former KGB agents who quit or were fired when the Shevchuk administration took office.
A number of KGB personnel resigned after Shevchuk fired the agency’s director, Vladimir Antyufeyev, in January 2012. Antyufeyev, a Smirnov ally, fled to Moscow five days later after a grenade exploded in front of his apartment.
Konoplev admits that some users, including opposition activists, journalists, and former security personnel, posted compromising material about current officials on the sites. Because existing law does not regulate the Internet, the authorities were forced into technical methods to counter the websites, he said.
One expert on Transdniester, Dmitri Belan of the Institute for Public Policy in Moldova, said the authorities would continue to step carefully around the issue of the assault on the websites because the shutdown lacked any legal or procedural sanction.
Alexander Caraman, a co-leader of the Rodina party who served as Smirnov’s vice president throughout the 1990s, said he has been unable to find out why the party’s site was blocked, either from officials or Interdnestrcom.
Caraman said the site may have suffered the same fate as Tiras.ru, a news site operated by the former KGB agent and Supreme Soviet deputy Dmitry Soin, now living in Ukraine and sought by Moldovan authorities in connection with a 1994 murder. In a January post on the website, Soin said the chief executive of Interdnestrcom had acknowledged that the site was blocked by order of “the competent state authority.”
The following month, the site posted a letter on Interdnestrcom letterhead that said Tiras.ru had been blocked for violations of the law on state security.
Caraman said Rodina would appeal the blockage of the party’s site all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary – seeking redress in the European Court of Human Rights is out of the question because Transdniester is not recognized as a country.
Ironically, Transdniester Social Forum helped Shevchuk reach potential voters during the 2011 presidential campaign, when he was almost completely shunned by the major media outlets.
Many saw the 40ish Shevchuk as more open and progressive than Smirnov, a politician who came up through the Soviet system. He and his ministers actively use Facebook and other social media.
“In contrast with Smirnov, Shevchuk understood the power of these kinds of web resources in Transdniester, and he used them to quash his opponents. At the same time, people lost a platform that could help them blow off some steam,” Belan said.
He doubts that the authorities will reopen access to the critical sites since it would be seen as a blow to the strategy of centralizing control over the media. This year several media companies have acquired new heads, a major television and radio station merged, and an influential news agency was renamed. All these companies belong to the state, but according to Yastrebchak, who served as foreign minister from 2008 until January 2012, shortly after Shevchuk took office, effective control passed from other bodies such as the legislature or media boards to the executive.
“At first glance it’s just a rebranding and nothing has changed. These media remained state-owned but now they have been incorporated into a vertical structure that Zubov built up. Making them subordinate to presidential power is the authorities’ biggest achievement this year,” he said.
Story and photo by Dmitri Romanovski, a journalist in Moldova.