A pro-Kremlin group runs a network of Internet trolls, seeks to buy flattering coverage of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and hatches plans to discredit opposition activists and media, according to private e-mails allegedly hacked by a group calling itself the Russian arm of Anonymous.
The group has uploaded hundreds of e-mails it says are to, from and between Vasily Yakemenko — the first leader of the youth group Nashi, now head of the Kremlin’s Federal Youth Agency — Nashi spokeswoman Kristina Potupchik and other activists. The e-mails detail payments to journalists and bloggers, the group said.
Potupchik declined to confirm or deny the veracity of the e-mails, but appeared to acknowledge that her e-mail had been hacked.
“I will not comment on illegal actions,” she said.
Nikita Borovikov, the current leader of Nashi, said: “For several years, I’ve got used to the fact that our e-mail is periodically hacked. When I heard the rumors that it had been hacked, I wasn’t shocked, and have paid no attention to this problem. I’m a law-abiding person and have nothing to fear of hiding, so I pay no attention.”
Apparently sent between November 2010 and December last year, the e-mails appear to confirm critics’ longstanding suspicions that the group uses sinister methods, funded by the Kremlin, to attack perceived enemies and pay for favorable reports while claiming that Putin’s popularity is unassailable.
They provide particular insight into the group’s strategy to boost pro-Putin coverage on the Internet, which in contrast to television is seen as being ruled by the opposition. Several e-mails sent from activists to Potupchik include price lists for pro-Putin bloggers and commenters, indicating that some are paid as much as 600,000 rubles (US$20,200) for leaving hundreds of comments on negative press articles on the Internet. One e-mail, sent to Potupchik on June 23 last year, suggests that the group planned to spend more than 10 million rubles to buy a series of articles about its annual Seliger summer camp in two popular Russian tabloids, Moskovsky Komsomolets and Komsomolskaya Pravda, and the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
Arkady Khantsevich, deputy editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, denied that his journalists accepted money for articles, a widespread practice in post-Soviet Russia.
“Yes, we wrote about Seliger, and will continue to,” he said. “But the paper has never entered into a financial contract, including with political parties.”
A spokesman for Moskovsky Komsomolets’ press service declined to comment: “I don’t read what they write on the Internet about MK being paid for stories about Seliger. It doesn’t interest us.”
Komsomolskaya Pravda has not responded publicly and could not be reached for comment.
The leak comes as Putin faces the greatest challenge to his rule since first coming to power 12 years ago, with mass demonstrations building momentum before a presidential vote on March 4 that is expected to return him to the presidency after a four-year interlude as prime minister.
Nashi was created precisely to stand up to any such challenge to Putin’s rule. It was formed in 2005 after pro-democracy revolutions in neighboring Ukraine and Georgia. Thousands of Nashi activists, mostly bused into the Russian capital from neighboring provinces, took to the streets in December as Russia’s protest movement took hold after a contested parliamentary vote.