The Kremlin has been looking beyond the youth movement lately. On Saturday, the day of the latest opposition protest, the Kremlin turned out thousands of people at a rally in support of Putin’s candidacy.
Although Putin remains Russia’s most popular politician, reports were widespread that many of those demonstrating in his support had been forced by employers or paid to take part, echoing the picture painted in the e-mails of a regime determined to keep up the appearance of his popularity.
“These strategies — what they do on the Internet and how they gather protests — are very similar,” said Alexey Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger who is helping to lead the protest movement. “Their main problem is that they don’t have real people who are ready to say something in support of them. They don’t have one person who supports them for free. So they pay.”
According to the e-mails, Nashi manipulates YouTube viewcounts and ratings, calling on paid Nashi activists to “dislike” anti-regime videos.
The e-mails show the particular attention Nashi pays to Navalny, whose anti-corruption blog and Twitter account have been instrumental in organizing anti-Putin sentiment. Activists are seen proposing various ideas to Yakemenko — from projects that came to fruition, such as a cartoon video comparing Navalny to Adolf Hitler — to others that were rejected, including a suggestion that someone dress up like the blogger to beg for alms in front of the US embassy. Putin and his supporters continue to insist that opposition protests have been funded and provoked by the West.
The correspondence appears to confirm that a host of pro-Putin stunts advertised as spontaneous acts by average citizens were in fact orchestrated by Nashi. Among these are a Web-based group called I Really Do Like Putin and the all-female Putin’s Army, which became notorious last summer after hosting a car wash in support of Putin and calling on women around the country to tear their shirts off for the leader.
Speculation that Nashi is behind pro-Putin stunts, pays Internet commenters to troll anti-regime sites and orders distributed denial of service Web attacks have long swirled around. However, the e-mails, if confirmed, would provide an unprecedented look into the system’s inner workings.
The Anonymous hackers told the online news portal Gazeta.ru, in an interview published late on Monday that they carried out the hack, planned since spring of last year, “as a sign of protest against the government’s actions in the public Internet sphere.”
The Russian government has so far avoided cracking down on Internet freedoms, and both Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have spoken out against Internet censorship. Yet activists have long complained of attacks that have brought down Web sites or flooded commentary with pro-Putin spam.
Opposition leaders have also accused Nashi of being behind a series of attacks, including repeated scuffles with the liberal youth leader Ilya Yashin and an incident in which ammonia-laced cola was thrown in the face of former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov. Nashi denied being involved in the latter.
The e-mails suggest a palpable concern within Nashi and the Kremlin after Russia’s contested parliamentary vote on Dec. 4 launched a protest movement that brought thousands on to the streets of Moscow for the first time. Activists write to Yakemenko proposing various “provocative actions” designed to discredit the movement.