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Analysis & Opinion
09.02.11 Can’t Beat It? Hack It!
By Dan Peleschuk

A month before the March 4 presidential elections, the heat has been turned up in Russian new media. In recent weeks activists and participants on both sides of the fence have embarked on an all-out character assault through sensationalist reporting, phone tapping and hacking e-mail accounts. The incidents, among other things, reveal that Kremlin supporters are equally eager to utilize new media to discredit the growing opposition movement. Yet observers note that such tactics most often miss the mark.

Media wars are nothing new to Russia. In the Boris Yeltsin era, privately owned media holdings acted as vehicles for either their executives’ business interests or Yeltsin’s election campaigns. And under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, state-owned news agencies have been dispatched to discredit opposition members, activists and others who have fallen out of favor with the regime.

Now, the rapid popularization of the Internet – and with it, social media networks – among young, middle class Russians has tossed a new curve into a previously tried and true method of publicly disgracing one’s opponents. And in a country whose regime controls the majority of media resources, the Internet has come to play a key role for the opposition movement and its many activists wanting to counter the dirt hurled at them from state-controlled outlets.

Yet, perhaps contrary to the now-popular narrative, the Internet is not only a tool of the opposition. Recent weeks alone have proven just how widespread the practice is among pro-Kremlin activists as well as within the opposition itself.

The recent wave of public tit-for-tats began with the Kremlin-friendly online news portal Life News published opposition leader Boris Nemtsov’s private phone conversations, in which he foul-mouthed many of his fellow opposition members. But the leak backfired in many ways, as Nemtsov seized the moment to publicly reconcile with eco-activist Yevgeniya Chirikova – who was hit the hardest by his angry rants – on the liberal Dozhd TV channel. What’s more, both used the opportunity to turn the story against the Kremlin, alleging the taps were planted by the FSB, Russia’s security service, and successfully feeding the anti-regime fervor that has only grown.

Since then, opposition sympathizers have fought back. Among their attacks was a leaked telephone conversation featuring Aram Gabrelyanov, a Kremlin ally and the father of Life News Editor Ashot Gabrelyanov, in a wildly explicit rant at the outlet’s employees. Also prominent was the leaked correspondence of Federal Youth Minister and former Nashi Commissar Vasily Yakimenko, which detailed suspiciously lavish personal spending, and of Nashi Spokesperson Kristina Potupchik, which shed light on the Kremlin’s war on the opposition.

Hacked by a Russian group calling itself “Anonymous,” Potupchik’s e-mails are particularly telling. They detail the pro-Kremlin youth group’s efforts at playing the Internet game: the scores of correspondence list prices for pro-Putin commentary on various social networks – 200 positive comments on 60 posts apparently earn about $20,000 – as well as suggestions from supporters on ways to discredit popular anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny through viral video parodies and other methods. Navalny’s own private e-mail correspondence with Lilia Shibanova, the head of the Golos election-monitoring agency, was leaked to Life News late last year, after customs agents at Sheremetyevo Airport confiscated Shibanova’s laptop.

Yet the group’s efforts backfired as well – and this time, onto the opposition. Among those allegedly paid for their coverage of Nashi’s annual summer camp at Lake Seliger was noted photographer Ilya Varlamov, who has long been associated with the opposition movement and is reportedly close to Navalny. Varlamov, who has repeatedly denied he received any money in exchange for coverage of pro-Putin events, is also a member of the League of Voters, a civil society group composed of various notable figures whose aim is to fight for fair elections.

Experts said that while the authorities have long since caught on to the trend of exchanging punches through new media, they do so at the expense of their own credibility. According to prominent blogger and media critic Oleg Kozyrev, the Kremlin does, in fact, have a coherent Internet strategy – except it’s the wrong one. “United Russia is still a large, powerful party, and once in a while it must actually do something worthwhile,” he said. “They could simply take the time to present the party and talk about it in an interesting, creative way, but for some reason, they choose the path of provocation – of threats or insults, or whatever else. It’s very strange.”

Others, such as journalist and Internet entrepreneur Anton Nossik, noted that the Internet is “merely a tool equally available to the opposition and the regime,” but that the state’s enormous resources give it a dubious advantage. But ultimately, he said, such tactics only continue fueling the anti-regime flames. “When Navalny’s account is hacked, this is done using state funds, and it will never be investigated because the police go to great lengths to protect the criminals and not pursue them,” he said. “When a normal taxpayer sees this blatant merger between the authorities and criminals taking place on his own tax money, then his natural reaction is indignation. And if that taxpayer happens to be aware of efficient technologies, then he can do the same thing to Kristina Potupchik and Vasily Yakimenko.”
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