In the United Nations' 2008 survey of member countries' use of information and communication technology, Russia came in 60th, ranking behind several of its former Soviet bloc brethren like Ukraine and Belarus.
President Dmitry Medvedev blasted Russia's lack of a leading 'e-government' computer infrastructure Monday, saying "the situation is unacceptable."
"The state computerization expenses are absolutely comparable to the expenses of European countries," Medvedev said at a meeting on the modernization of the Russian economy. "[Comparing] Russia and Germany, we spend about the same percentage of the GDP, but the effectiveness of this spending is very low," he added.
Leading by example, the Kremlin launched a new website and YouTube channel today, coinciding with the nationwide Sept. 1 back to school day. The video leading the new channel is an address from Medvedev to students, one of just four videos on the page so far but the Kremlin plans to continually update the Web site with Medvedev's direct addresses to the country as well as snippets of his speeches.
"YouTube is very popular, and we hope to increase our audience through it not only by reaching out to the users of the Russian segment of the Internet, but also the Russian-speaking Internet users in other countries," said Medvedev's spokeswoman.
The new website has a cleaner, more streamlined look with a picture at the top of - not coincidentally - of the president peering over a young student's shoulder who is working at a computer. It also has a new bio page for the president that features informal pictures of the First Couple along with a selection of Medvedev's personal photography.
The Kremlin may appear a tad behind the times when across the Atlantic the White House has an in-house "new media" team and is active on Twitter and Flickr, but this is a significant change for a Russian regime that has traditionally avoided transparency and sought to control the media.
"It's a very positive move," says Boris Kagarlitsky, a sociologist at Moscow's Institute of Globalization and Social Movements. "It makes them behave in a different way and forces them to accept a different situation."
Kremlin Seeks to Level Cyber War Playing Field
In April, Medvedev launched a blog on LiveJournal.com, a social networking site popular with Russian Internet users. In his inaugural post, Medvedev solicited comments from the public, a rare opportunity for citizens to communicate directly with their leaders.
"It indicates his interest in these new technologies and their use for government purposes," Kagarlitsky said. "He really spends a lot of time on the internet and he enjoys it."
Kagarlitsky also believes the government's newfound affinity for communicating over the Internet is a way for it to level the cyber playing field since anti-Kremlin activists are more vocal online than its supporters.
"It can help the president be more transparent and bring his ideas to young people who are connected to the Internet," says Peter Vinagradov, a 24-year-old economist who is active on social networking sites. "Ideas might not be best presented through traditional channels. Young people [in Russia] think television is biased. On the Internet they can hear his direct position without hearing commentss."
State agencies are less enthralled than their president about the opportunities computerization offers and have repeatedly been criticized for not heeding his call to modernize.
"We are very weak and despite continued financing, the situation is getting worse," Medvedev said Monday. "There has been no progress on developing an electronic state purchasing system, an internal government electronic documentation system, or a unified system for results of science research and engineering."
"It has been proven that the quality of government service directly affects the state of democracy in our country as well as the issue of fighting corruption," he added.
Medvedev also bemoaned the low levels of computer literacy among the general population on Monday saying, "Sometimes you quite simply have to force people." He said that the issue would be addressed at the modernization committee's September meeting.