If you are an opposition politician in Russia and someone hacks into your e-mail, the police will not be interested in the hacker, even though his name is no secret. Parliament deputies will, however, demand that you, the victim, be placed under investigation based on the content of your private mailbox.
Welcome to the surreal world of Alexei Navalny, the lawyer and anti-corruption blogger whom many consider to be one of the leaders of recent “white ribbon” protests against President Vladimir Putin's authoritarian rule.
The blog Politrash, Russia's self-styled “top political trash collector,” published an excerpt from the 2010 correspondence between Navalny and his friend Nikita Balkh, the governor of Kirov, a poor region about 700 miles northeast of Moscow. The e-mails, according to the blog, were hijacked by a notorious hacker nicknamed Hell. Hell's identity is known: Sergei Maksimov, a 38-year-old resident of Germany, has broken into a number of high-profile Russian blogs, mainly those of liberal opposition figures.
He had bragged about hacking into Navalny's e-mail once before, in 2011. This was Maksimov's second raid on the activist lawyer, and he was able to boast of it in an interview with the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia. “I never discuss technical details,” he said. “I can only say that the password was really difficult to crack and it took me quite a long time." Asked whether he had done it because he supported Putin's government, Hell said: “I don't like the current government, it is too spineless because it allows criminals like Navalny to evade punishment."
Hell told Izvestia that he had extracted three gigabytes of information from Navalny's mailbox and that he intended to read through it and then make it public. The excerpt published on July 2 has been the first installment. It shows Navalny and Belykh in an acrimonious discussion concerning an overdue debt the Kirov governor owed. The amount mentioned in the correspondence was a paltry $152, but Navalny's enemies surmised from the context that it was $152,000. Hell wrote that he believed the money was somehow stolen from the Kirov region's budget. He also stressed Navalny's clearly facetious allegation in the correspondence that Belykh had “stolen a distillery.”
Official reaction followed quickly -- but not to Hell's braggadocio. Sergei Zheleznyak, deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament, told Izvestia that the Duma would watch closely as the correspondence was studied by the proper authorities. “If the information is confirmed, that would be a reason to draw serious conclusions about both parties," Zheleznyak said, referring to Navalny and Belykh. “After all, we are talking about a regional governor and the board member of one of Russia's biggest companies."
Navalny serves on the board of Aeroflot, the national airline, representing a minority shareholder.
The upper house of parliament could not remain indifferent, either. Senator Ruslan Gattarov asked Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika to check into all the facts revealed by the stolen correspondence.
Navalny and Belykh both freely admitted that the letters were genuine. Both said their financial dispute dated back to the time Navalny ran an unsuccessful trading business more than 10 years ago and had nothing to do with Belykh's work as governor. “My work has been scrutinized with a microscope ever since I went into politics,” Belykh wrote in his blog. “Someone wants to take another look? Welcome!” He also slammed Gattarov and others for reacting to illegally obtained material: “Commenting on something that was illegally gained is truly wrong. It condones such methods of obtaining information.”
Navalny, for his part, reacted in a typically sarcastic manner. “Be attentive, readers of other people's mail, and do not let all kinds of crooks fool you by screaming that we're robbing the Kirov region,” he wrote. “Look, when my wife takes the kids to school, her car is followed. I can't even imagine where they've installed cameras. The police and even the firefighters are looking for something. But they cannot find what does not exist."
In a separate post, Navalny claimed that his e-mail was hacked after police searched his apartment on June 11 and seized all his computers, claiming to look for evidence of illegal activity during a May 6 opposition rally in Moscow, which ended in violent clashes between protesters and police. This became a popular theory among opposition activists.
“After the special services went through Navalny's mail and realized there was nothing they could pin on him, they decided to leak the correspondence via the mythical “hacker Hell,” blogger Irek Murtazin wrote. “Of course, Sergei Maksimov is a real person, but his abilities in terms of hacking mailboxes and blogs are grossly exaggerated. It's likely that Maksimov or, to be more exact, his backers have access to a database of mail passwords."
Whether or not this particular conspiracy theory is true, it is a fact that the police aren't looking to prosecute Hell, who isn't doing his best to hide. The pro-Putin establishment is more interested in finding a way to bring down Navalny. During a mass demonstration in Moscow on June 12, the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, a state-owned polling service, found the lawyer to be the most respected political figure among the protesters, enjoying 46 percent support.
Navalny is banned from national television, and establishment figures from Putin on down never mention him by name in any public remarks. He is clearly feared, and discrediting him is a priority that makes a Navalny-hating hacker Putin's natural ally.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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