The Duck of Minerva

I’m sorry, but your computer has to come with us

7 September 2007

Can you imagine if the FBI were confiscating computers in local Democratic party offices, merely three months before the Congressional elections?

Selective enforcement of the rules has long been a way of controlling political opponents in post-Soviet space. Everyone breaks the rules, but only those who represent a threat to the authorities get a visit from the tax authorities, or the building inspector, or the like. Leonid Kuchma, former president of Ukraine, had this kompromat down to a science–and it was ultimately a major factor in his downfall.

The Moscow Times reports a new twist on this old practice: software piracy. Software piracy is widespread in Russia. Unlicensed copies are easily available and considerably cheaper than legit software, which can take a big bite out of the budget of a small NGO or business. In Nizhny Novgorod, police raided the offices of two different opposition-oriented NGOs and the local office of Novaya Gazeta, the paper that published the work of murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Similar raids have taken place in other cities, including Samara and Tula. The NGOs accuse the authorities of selective enforcement, while the authorities, naturally, deny any political motives. The law permits the police to confiscate computers suspected of containing pirated software and to keep them for as long as two months. Even if everything on the computer is fully licensed, the loss of a computer for two months is a major blow for politically oriented groups, opposition parties, and gadfly reporters, particularly as we are now less than three months away from the Duma elections.