Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Web Site Serves Up Political Intrigue




With elections approaching, Russia's political schemers are using the World Wide Web to update the technique of kompromat, the venerable tactic of dishing documentary dirt on business and political competitors.


The latest popular site is Kogot-2, or Claw (www.krasnobykow.com), which provides a treasure trove of purported secret files, police reports and intelligence analyses on Krasnoyarsk governor and presidential hopeful Alexander Lebed and his public enemy, aluminum magnate Anatoly Bykov.


The site details what it says are links between Bykov, various criminal groups and Moscow's powerful Mayor Yury Luzhkov, another presidential hopeful.


Internet scandal-mongering is not new - U.S. web gossip Matt Drudge was the first to report the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton scandal - but the current outburst is peculiarly Russian, with heavy use of electronic eavesdropping and the intelligence services lurking in the background.


It's fascinating stuff - and almost totally unsubstantiated. Theories abound about who is behind Kogot and other such sites - could it be spies, political imagemakers, jittery journalists?


"I think by election time, there will be a madhouse of such rumors on the web," said Alexander Plushchev, a host of a daily Internet review program on radio Ekho Moskvy. His program, EkhoNet (www.echonet.ru), devoted the entire week of programs to political provocations and scandals.


Anton Nossik, webmaster for the Moscow News, said Moscow is awash in legal and illegal surveillance by current, former and would-be intelligence agents.


"There is a ton of such material gathered around Moscow," Nossik said. "Private investigators are listening in, the secret services are listening in, specialists paid for by the newspapers such as Moskovsky Komsomolets are listening in. There are piles and piles of such tapes lying around many offices.


"And because any governmental organization is basically a compilation of poorly paid workers, all these things can be sold and bought."


Unlike its predecessor, also called Kogot, the site is hosted safely offshore, on a U.S. computer. The first Kogot disappeared within a few hours of its debut Nov. 26 amid media outcry and an investigation by the computer crime unit of the Interior Ministry. Notonly did the site mysteriously disappear, but its Russian host computer was disconnected from the Internet, the worldwide computer network.


But before it disappeared, the first Kogot spread all kinds of kompromat goodies: a long list of home addresses and phone numbers of the Russian political and business elite; biographical files on politicians including the interior minister and prosecutor general; and transcribed pager and answering machine messages for several influential public figures.


For additional spice, it offered what it said was a transcribed conversation between the politically-connected billionaire Boris Berezovsky and Tatyana Dyachenko, President Boris Yeltsin's daughter and image adviser.


The information itself did not vanish. Internet lurkers saved bits, pieces and entire files and put them up on other web sites.


The web, with its low cost and potential for anonymity, was perhaps an inevitable destination for kompromat. Though the immediate audience is limited to Russia's estimated 1 million people with web access, newspapers and radio magnified the effect by jumping on the Kogot story.


Experts say there are numerous suspects: political spin doctors working out new technologies for the upcoming elections for parliament in 1999 and for the presidency in 2000; intelligence agencies seeking to influence public opinion, or journalists who need to distance themselves from tidbits leaked from sources sitting in Kremlin offices.


Nossik said one clear beneficiary of the hysteria surrounding the Internet rumor mill is the Federal Security Service, or FSB, successor to the KGB. The uproar could help it lobby for eased restrictions on monitoring the web. Currently, the FSB has to get a warrant to track electronic communication by individuals, but it is pushing to gain automatic access to all web communications - without warrants.


The information on the first Kogot site looked genuine, said journalist Alexander Minkin of Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia's best known investigative reporters. About a year's worth of his private pager messages wound up on the first Kogot.


"It was obviously information that came from my own pager," he said. "I could remember most of them. Some of them were work-related, some were pages from family and friends.


"No buts about it, these leaks will have the most grave consequences for our society," said Minkin. "They demonstrate the weakness of our government, the weakness of our law.


"Just think about it: My personal messages get posted on the web, and it goes unpunished and doesn't infuriate any one," he said.


But while Minkin was outraged, many other journalists used the information without a second thought.


In mid-December, another site, www.rumors.ru, appeared. Although registered in Russia, it was located on a computer in the United States where companies providing computer space for web pages have more freedom and less responsibility for the content of a site. In Russia, Internet providers could be held responsible under Russia's more restrictive mass media laws.


True to its name, the site was a warehouse of rumors about the political elite, ranging from alleged links to criminal groups to sexual orientation.


The agency that claimed to have created the site, Slukhovoye Okno or the Listening Window, advertised it on the popular search engine rambler.ru and soon claimed high popularity.


In two e-mail interviews with Russian media, the creators of rumors.ru claimed to be four former analysts from the presidential administration. The anonymous authors said they simply wanted to give the Russian public "a quality information product."


But on Feb. 18, the site vanished. In a note, the creators said they would be back in 3 or 4 days, but for now were yielding to "unprecedented pressure from some of the subjects of the rumors."