Hacked e-mails suggest dirty tricks by Russian youth group

The e-mails seem to confirm that youth group Nashi uses cash from the Kremlin to buy praise for Putin and to attack and denigrate his perceived enemies

By Miriam Elder  /  The Guardian, MOSCOW

Thu, Feb 09, 2012 - Page 9

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.

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.

Asked by the Guardian about the hack, Borovikov said: “I’m not ready to discuss any provocations. It’s not correct to discuss this in principle. Unfortunately, it has become part of life to get into personal things, but it is not very nice to discuss it. It’s amoral. To think Nashi, as a social youth organization, has a lot of money is a delusion. The main resource of any social organization is its people.”

Yakemenko’s office directed all queries to Potupchik, who did not answer subsequent requests for comment.

Additional reporting by Ilya Mouzykantskii