In brief

  • Russian officials are seeking to overturn the ban on the Telegram messaging app.
  • Attempts over the years to block the app have failed.
  • Authorities are using it to spread essential public information about the coronavirus, despite the ban.

As Russia wrestles to bring its coronavirus crisis under control, officials have proposed lifting the government's ban on encrypted messaging app Telegram, local news site kommersant.ru reported on Wednesday.

It comes after years of unsuccessful efforts by the Kremlin to block the popular messaging app, and is an indication of the scale of the coronavirus pandemic in Russia. Indeed, the authorities themselves have resorted to disseminating vital information about the disease on Telegram. 

“[A] further declarative ban of the messenger is damaging the prestige of the authority of the State, not the development of Telegram,” a bill drafted by two parliamentarians argued. “There is a wide number of free services that allow us to easily bypass the ban.”

Kremlin struggles to block Telegram

The draft bill—sent to the Prime Minister’s office and the communications ministry—is a testament to the Kremlin’s inability to ban Telegram, despite its best efforts. 

The app is a popular choice for communication in Russia, where its encrypted technology makes it possible for people to message each other without government snooping, and for protest organizers to operate with near-impunity.

Telegram first fell afoul of the authorities after its founder Pavel Durov (the Russian Mark Zuckerberg) refused to disclose encryption keys to the security services, and was subsequently forced to flee Russia. 

Officials’ initial attempts to ban Telegram were farcical. Entire sections of the web, online stores, services—even the Kremlin museum’s ticket sales—were inadvertently blocked, while the public quickly latched onto accessing the messaging app through VPNs (virtual public networks) and demonstrators made an icon of Durov

Now authorities must weigh the app’s dissident appeal with its reach in disseminating vital information about the pandemic.

Putin’s pandemic problems

Russia, to date, has reported only 555 deaths as a result of the coronavirus; the Kremlin is accused of masking outbreaks in remote regions. Footage of ambulances queuing for up to nine hours to reach hospitals undermines the picture of a pandemic that’s in hand

Meanwhile, plans to issue workers with digital passes, to ease the four-week lockdown, have been greeted with suspicion and fears that authorities will tap into personal data

President Putin has crafted an image based on order, prosperity and stability. Yet regional governments are only able to offer 3,000 roubles ($40) in a one-off payment to those who’ve lost their jobs as a result of the lockdown. 

"The paternalistic Russian state… can't implement their promises. They can't help people, can't help business," Andrei Kolesnikov of the Moscow Carnegie Centre think-tank told the BBC.  

Coronavirus cases in Russia's regions are growing at a faster rate than in Moscow. On Monday, hundreds of people in the southern city of Vladikavkaz came out to rally against the lockdown. Some were doubtless using Telegram.