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Secret Money, Hacks, and Politics of Russian Web

Categories: Eastern & Central Europe, Russia, Citizen Media, Digital Activism, Economics & Business, Media & Journalism, Politics, Protest, RuNet Echo

While suspicions about money and sponsorship plague all Russian politics, the RuNet is a particularly contentious battleground. The rift between the oppositionist and pro-government camps is a hotbed of accusations about illicit funding, with each side desperately professing its own honesty and insisting on the other's deception. When it comes to news developments about cash in the RuNet, the stories usually spring from illegal hacks.

For instance, in October 2011, the notorious Hacker Hell published [1] years worth of oppositionist blogger Alexey Navalny's private emails, parts of which implicate Navalny in mercenary muckraking attacks on business tycoon Oleg Deripaska. (Navalny says these particular emails were forged.) Roughly three months later, anonymous hackers published emails [2] stolen from Vasily Yakemenko and Kristina Potupchik, former leading members of the pro-Kremlin youth group NASHI. Those logs incriminated a whole slew of popular Russian bloggers in taking government money to report favorably about Vladimir Putin.


Russian journalist Tonia Samsonova, April 2006, photo by Maxim Avdeev, CC 2.0.

It's through leaks and theft like this that the world is accustomed to learning about how the RuNet's biggest figures earn their daily bread. In late December 2012, however, Slon.ru journalist Tonia Samsonova got fed up with this pattern and did something really wild [4] [ru]: she reached out to 16 members of the “Coordinating Council of the Russian opposition” and asked them plainly to reveal the sources of their income and the status of their wealth. All 16 individuals actively blog or microblog on LiveJournal, Facebook, or Twitter, and five belong to Navalny's netizen projects [5] [ru]: Navalny himself, Liubov Sobol (RosPil), Vladimir Ashurkov (Fond borby s korruptsiei), Georgy Alburov (RosVybory), and Vladislav Naganov (DMP).

Before reviewing the responses to Samsonova's questions, it's worth noting the efforts [6] [ru] that an organization like RosPil, Navalny's flagship project, has made to uphold transparency. On RosPil's website, there is a public archive of every expenditure [7] [ru] in 2012 and every Yandex.Dengi donation [8] since 2011, the staff is photographed alongside short biographies (though July 2012 recruit [9] Anatoly Shashkin is missing), and Navalny has delegated “controller” status over the project's Yandex.Dengi account to four monitors: one journalist (Aleksandr Plushev), an Internet guru (Anton Nossik), one photoblogger (Rustem Adagamov), and also a pro-Kremlin blogger, fritzmorgen (real name Oleg Makarenko). In January 2012, Navalny even responded [10] [ru] to a long report [11] by Makarenko, wherein Navalny actually agreed to adopt the blogger's idea to archive scans of RosPil purchasing receipts (though RosPil's website offers no such thing, a year later).

Given RosPil's commitment to openness, one might have assumed that Samsonova's inquiry would have been an easy win for Navalny and the opposition's champions of accountability. This, after all, would be an opportunity to showcase the protest movement's unwavering commitment to public accountability and openness.

It didn't quite work out that way.

Indeed, anti-oppositionist LiveJournal user xs17 welcomed [12] [ru] the article as “an unexpected New Years gift to all lovers of justice,” reposting unflattering excerpts and lampooning the respondents for their reluctance to be forthcoming about their wealth. When some oppositionists did answer Samsonova's questions, xs17 criticized them for bourgeois excess (linking to a biting takedown [13] [ru] of Boris Nemtsov by Eduard Limonov, for instance) and accused them of underreporting their assets (such as Navalny's unmentioned Infiniti M35x and Nemtsov's whitewashed past).

The same day that Samsonova published her questionnaire, Twitter was flooded with tweets (probably assisted by a bot net) using the hashtag “#НаЧтоЖиветОппозиция [14]” (“OnWhatDoesTheOppositionLive”). Many of the tweets mirrored xs17's criticisms, reposting compromising excerpts and mocking individuals for dubious earnings and extravagant wealth.

Samsonova herself was clearly disappointed in the responses to her questions. All 16 oppositionists refused to endorse mandatory earnings declarations for Coordinating Council members, though most did discuss to some extent their own wealth. Some council members, like Sergei Udaltsov and Olga Romanova, rejected obligatory declarations on the grounds that they might arm the authorities with dangerous information. In a concluding remark, Samsonova took issue with that logic:

Они и раньше это делали, когда вы ничего про себя не публиковали. Таким образом, если недружественные государственные органы и так про вас все знают, почему бы не поделиться информацией о себе с дружественными согражданами?

[State investigators already learned about you] when you weren't publishing anything about yourselves. As such, if unfriendly state agencies already know everything about you, why not share the information with your friendly fellow citizens?

While this reaction may have disappointed many, it's important to understand the consequences of the council members’ attitude. By refusing to hold themselves to the transparency standards they expect of elected officials, the opposition is hardly depriving itself of all legitimacy. If the Coordinating Council is meant simply to be a means of synchronizing the protest movement, income declarations perhaps make no sense. The lack of commitment to financial openness, however, does prevent the Council from becoming a real shadow government—something for which many hoped, during last October's online elections.

Now that we can scratch off the list this most ambitious prospect, the Russian opposition will have to decide what it is prepared to make of the Coordinating Council. Returning to the theme of money and conspiracy, it's a shame that Samsonova didn't interview councilman Andrei Piontkovsky, who just weeks earlier in a blog post [15] [ru] on Ekho Moskvy mused that the Russian opposition as we know it is the “business project” of banking tycoon Mikhail Fridman [16], founder and chairman of the investment consortium Alfa Group. In that blog post, Piontkovsky suggested that fellow Coordinating Council member Vladimir Ashurkov never really severed his ties to Fridman and Alfa Group (where he was a top manager for six years, until [17] [ru] April 2012), meaning that Ashurkov could be the point-man for an entire oligarchic political campaign.

Samsonova did, however, talk to Ashurkov. As you might have guessed, he refused to discuss his income or his wealth, and he confessed no interest in others’ assets, dismissing the subject as “idle curiosity.”