Russia to “Cyrillicize” the internet
The Russian government recently announced that it will be able to produce and register Web sites in Cyrillic. Is this an attempt at controlling the internet or preserving Russia’s lanaguage?
The Russian government recently announced that it will be able to produce and register web addresses in Cyrillic. The announcement was made during the 10th World Congress of the Russian press. President Medvedev was quoted as saying that “we should do everything possible to get domain names assigned in Cyrillic characters in the future. This is a serious matter.” The serious matter is the protection and preservation of Russian culture and language. Russian is the sixth most widely spoken language, and the number of speakers is declining due to mass immigration out of Russia, the early assimilation of Russian children in other countries, the demand for English classes in Russia and other Russian-speaking countries, and the high level of Chinese and English language influence.
The registration and the creation of the .rf domain signify the need to “Russify” information. The idea of Cyrillic-based domain names is not new. According to a 2001 Moscow Times article, it has been possible to register Cyrillic script with .com, .net, and .org domains. Medvedev’s intentions are to implement this on a much wider scale offering Russian users a Russian-friendly internet separating it from all the others who do not have Russia’s national pride and its interests as their first priority.
Already, many Web sites that are printed or displayed in Russian do not offer an English translation. Some Web sites, such as Turkmenistan.ru, offer both a Russian and an English version. However, on the Turkmenistan.ru Web site, the English version differs greatly from the Russian version, lacking important articles and offering different and less content. Although not owned by the Russian government, and operated by Media-Service-TM, Turkmenistan.ru symbolizes the symptomatic “Russification” of information and an attempt to limit information available to non-speaking Russian people.
The Cyrillic domain names – along with Turkmenistan.ru – are merely a way to stop the penetration of outside influence into Russian media, particularly English and Chinese linguistic influence. It would eliminate the Western influence on the internet since all of the domain names use the Latin alphabet. It also limits the amount of Russian information coming in and out. This prevents independent journalists and pro-Western critics from releasing their information. Likewise, it is a way to stop foreigners from accessing Russian information since many non-Russian speaking users are unable to type, read, and write in Russian or lack a Russian keyboard layout.
This leads to the belief that with the new domain, the Russian government is strengthening its controls on the Internet and the media. Russia’s internet is not yet controlled or fully regulated by the federal government. Former President Putin received mass criticism when his Administration merged two regulatory commissions together: the Federal Service for Media Law Compliance and Cultural Heritage and the Federal Information Technologies Agency. This sounded the alarm among independent media outlets and journalists because one agency regulates, while the other issues licenses. Failure to comply meant the closure of media outlets or the punishment of journalists. Amidst criticism, the Kremlin claimed that it was a way to improve efficiency by centralizing tasks and not having them spread throughout different government institutions. To outsiders, it was apparent that the move was a smokescreen to cover up the real intentions of the Russian government: to quell dissent and regulate the media. Many Web sites that had criticized Putin prior to the 2008 presidential election had been shut down, forced to find a new web server, or forced to comply with stricter guidelines making their independent view basically non-existent.
This switch to Cyrillic web addresses sends a signal to the West and Europe that the Russian government is clamping down on freedom of press and expression. The move to “Russify” the Internet has the potential to alienate the West and European Union member-states. The Kremlin, facing scrutiny because of Putin’s crackdown on media oligarchs, claims that the new domain is simply a way to preserve Russia’s linguistic identity. Western critics are not buying it. Many hoped that once Putin’s latest presidential term expired, and there was a new Russian President things would change.
The West and its European allies have been openly against the Russian government and its inter-governmental policies of centralization and the rollback on democratic reforms – mainly free speech – that were embraced and implemented by Gorbachev and the West. Medvedev’s plan is going to increase criticism, isolating Russia more. Russia believes that West does not understand the democracy in Russia, and views Western involvement as bullying and an attempt to impose Western-style democracy on a country whose democracy is young developing. Part of this development, maintains Russia, is to create Cyrillic domain names to preserve Russian culture and language. But, this can be detrimental: the internet has the power to bridge millions of people from hundreds of countries; having a Cyrillic domain limits the power, isolating Russian users from the global and virtual community.
Russia’s new internet can be also used as a tool to keep former Soviet republics in check. The loss of the Russian language’s dominance in the republics has been viewed as a loss of Soviet national pride which many still have and long for. On 30 June, Lithuanian Web sites were hacked into and defaced two weeks after Lithuania had prohibited Soviet symbols. A similar act occurred in Estonia last year after a statue of Stalin was removed from the Tallinn, the capital. Both Soviet republics have a notable Russian minority, and seek integration and better relations with the West. The debasing of Web sites can be viewed as punishment for abandoning Russian culture and language, and befriending the West. The Kremlin has made a series of attempts to strengthen their stronghold on the Baltic republics and support these minorities lending credence to the claims of critics who accuse Russia of trying to restore Soviet Union territorial integrity and meddling in other country’s affairs.
The move to “Cyrillicize” Russia’s internet will worry the West as it is a sign to reassert Russia’s language dominance and overall restore Russian nationalism, which often has been a driving force in Russian society. With the growing nationalist movements, both peaceful and non-peaceful, Russia’s new domain encourages people to be proud to be Russian once again. The overall nationalist sentiment will inevitably lead to isolation from the West and Europe.
The plan to create a Russian internet is not expected to be implemented soon, so its effects are unknown. It is hard to tell whether or not the Cyrillic domain .rf will help preserve and restore Russia’s linguistic integrity and uniqueness. And, it is highly unlikely that the domain will increase the number of Russian-speaking peoples and help expand Russian in the former Soviet Republics where Russian is no longer an official language. However, it may reinstate a cultural identity that has been dwindling ever since the Soviet Union collapsed, empowering Russia and making it more distinguished in its own right.