Julia Reed in Moscow
June 11, 2012
Following the violent clashes between police and protesters during the opposition rally on the eve of the inauguration Vladimir Putin on May 6, the future for freedom of speech in Russia looked bleak.
A proposed new law on rallies that is wending its way through the Duma is going to tighten the Kremlin's control over protesters and organisers, making them liable for RUB600,000 ($18,000) fines for violating strict and extensive rules. The law has only passed its first reading, but the first arrests of ordinary protesters who were at the May 6 protests have already started.
The authorities are ratcheting up the pressure slowly. Students have been threatened with expulsion from universities if they are arrested and young men have received national service summons from the army after being detained by the police. Still, there are enough young Russians determined to fight for their political freedoms and political reform for the protests to continue. Alyona Popova, 29, is one of those "angry citizens" who has found herself thrust into the front line of the struggle. An entrepreneur of exactly the type the government say they want to encourage, she works out of an office that with its white carpet and modern red and white furniture, looks like an advertising company. Popova is instantly likeable. Pretty and with a positive, outgoing personality, one would never peg her as one of the new faces of the Russian opposition.
Her name may not appear in print as often as some others, but Popova was there after the Moscow opposition rally of March 5 standing on top of the frozen fountain on Pushkin square together with her more famous peers Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov, firebrand blogger Alexei Navalny, activist Ilya Yashin and her partner, State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomaryov
Popova's arm was broken by the OMON (Russian special forces) after she and some of the protesters refused to leave the square. But this incident did not deter her. Since then, she was involved in negotiating with the police when they tried to arrest protesters of Occupy Barrikadnaya, a smaller open-air camp that formed after Moscow's answer to Zuccotti Park, Occupy Abai, was dispersed several days earlier.
A former Just Russia Duma deputy candidate from Novosibirsk region, Popova brought guest speakers to Occupy Arbat, (the site of another Moscow protest camp) to talk about Russia's political future and the future of Russian democracy. A believer in constitutional monarchy, Popova is the mastermind and the head of the Open Initiatives Fund, which she runs together with Ponomaryov, a Duma deputy and one of the heads of the Left Front, a radical socialist movement.
Not content with steering Russia onto a more democratic path, she is also the guardian of four children with health issues, two of whom suffer from epilepsy. When she first met the children, Popova was told that they must not swim or play sports in order to avoid the risk of a fit. "I immediately signed them up for swimming and they started going to a normal school, because I thought people have fits as a result of stress and tension. If they were in a normal environment, why would they have fits? And they haven't since then," says Popova.
A blogger and IT specialist, a businessperson and a young politician, Popova is interested in generating greater awareness of e-government in Russia and helped establish the project Duma 2.0 in Moscow. Yet her main goal is to set up grassroots institutions in Russia that will aid public debate of social issues and boost the development of socially meaningful business initiatives. "I don't like rallies. I don't believe in the effectiveness of protest rhetoric, I prefer direct action," says Popova.
She is searching for ways to effect change and has several successes to her name already. Under the auspices of her fund, Popova initiated a series of internet-based projects in order to raise public awareness and government accountability. One of them is OpenDuma, a free online resource allows general public to follow the activities of the Duma. Another project, InData, is a source that provides financial support and teaches journalists how to transform dry official statistics into the information useful to the general public. OpenAction is an all-Russia daily database of protest activities. "Every month, our fund runs open days when people come and talk about their projects and look for investment. I serve as an intermediary between the projects and the investors providing them with publicity, advice and facilities. For example, Grazhdanin Nablyudatel (or Citizen Observer), one of the grassroots election watchdogs, is housed on the premises of the fund," says Popova proudly.
The Open Initiatives Fund pays special attention to projects in the region and helps raise money for socially meaningful start-ups, another for start-ups run by women. The fund stores an open database of ideas and offers for discussion as well as crowd sourced fundraising using the online Russian payment system YandexMoney. "We are completely transparent. It's our principle. Our sponsors are on our website with all the budgets," she says.
The scope of the projects varies from a national database of all road accidents through to a legal database listing cases, lawyer profiles, illegitimate trials, and on to a source that helps diabetics monitor their sugar levels at home and another site that helps families find their missing children. What all these initiatives have in common is that they address the issue of the lack of publicly open information on the day-to-day needs and services of the people. Until recently almost all public services were only available to those that trekked down to the relevant government office in person. It was impossible to book a doctor's appointment or print out a communal payment bill remotely. Popova believes that transparency of public data and vehicles for idea generation, such as the Open Initiatives Fund, lead to greater government accountability and improvement in the quality of life and services. "We are looking for new regional leaders who have already launched initiatives. We want to give proactive people a public forum and national recognition," Popova explains.
Her initiatives are in line with modern western thinking. Popova just wants to modernise Russia's public services, make them user-friendlier and help new businesses get off the ground. Currently, she is in the middle of a public debate about what the opposition could do to bring about the change that many want.
Popova doesn't see herself as a politician, but simply as a citizen who wants Russia to become a developed society with vibrant public debate where people can initiate action. In the current environment of societal inertia, Popova's projects still seem exotic. "I am optimistic about the future. I see new projects coming and ideas flowing every day," she says.
And looking at her commitment and enthusiasm, one can believe that Popova might even fulfill her ambition one day to become the first Russian female prime minister. "My motto is the words of [Bangladeshi economist and a founder of the micro-loan Grameen Bank who won the Nobel Peace Prize] Muhammad Yunus, who said that he wants to be a person who says what he thinks and who does what he says."