6 May 2011
Beginning in the middle of April 2011, several people who donated money through Yandex.Dengi to Aleksei Navalny’s RosPil said they were contacted by a female reporter claiming to work for “Sol’” newspaper. Bloggers have since identified the caller as Yulia Dikhtiar, a Nashi commisar in Voronezh. On May 2nd, this story developed into a full-blown scandal, when the print media and RuNet blogosphere linked the incidents to Yandex’s April 28th IPO on Nasdaq.
Later in the day on May 2nd, Elena Kolmanovskaia, Chief Editor of Yandex, announced that the FSB had indeed twice previously requested transactions information from Yandex.Dengi concerning Navalny’s account (the second request apparently targeted 100 specific donators).
Initially, Navalny was on vacation in Ukraine, whose apparently lousy Internet availability he blamed for being late to respond to the leak scandal. He was, however, able to make himself available for a Slon.ru interview the day after the story hit the headlines, on May 3rd. For the man who tweets at a hummingbird’s pace, it took Navalny 48 hours to mount a follow-up post on his LiveJournal blog. Despite this “vacation delay,” Navalny returned from Ukraine more fiery and accusatory than ever.
In both his Slon interview and LJ post, Navalny seems to hold back less on President Medvedev than usual. In the interview, he actually links Medvedev to that diabolical duo of Putin & Surkov, asking who among the three might have ordered the FSB inquiry into RosPil’s funding. In the LJ post, he writes a particularly scathing critique of Medvedev, calling him “Blogger Medvedev, the man some people still call ‘President Medvedev.’” He repeats this insult another three times in the post. Will this become the new catchphrase to accompany his increasingly annoying repetition of the once-charming quip “kremlovskie vorishki i zhuliki”?
Maybe as another consequence of being extraordinarily ticked off, Navalny specifically accuses the FSB and SVR of nepotism, highlighting the suspiciously good fortunes enjoyed by the sons of Bortnikov, Patrushev, Fradkov, and Ivanov.
It’s unclear how (or if) the story will develop, though Navalny has promised to submit formal complaints and demands for an investigation into the illegal dissemination of private information to the General Prosecutor, the SK, the FSB, and to “Blogger Medvedev” himself. Liberal outlets like Gazeta.ru have echoed the call for an investigation, the promise of which could be the ‘silver lining’ to this abuse of federal power, they say.
Nashi has denied any part in the phone calls. Its spokeswoman, Kristina Potupchik, has confirmed that Yulia Dikhtiar is indeed a member of the organization, but Potupchik says she never called any RosPil supporters.
So is there really any evidence that Dikhtiar actually made the calls?
I wasn’t the only one to ask this question. Maksim Kononenko, popular RuNet blogger whom I’ve discussed frequently on AGT, was also skeptical about the claim that Dikhtiar was the person behind the phone calls. As it turns out, however, there is indeed evidence that Yulia was the one to phone up anonymous RosPil donators. In fact, Kononenko had his face rubbed in this fact by none other than Vladimir Pribylovskii.
The strongest evidence that “Yulia Ivashova” of “Sol’” magazine (as the caller self-identified) is actually Yulia Dikhtiar seems to rest with computer-programmer blog “GunLinux.” On April 13, 2011, GunLinux put up a post titled “Nashi Trolling, Because of Navalny.” The blogger recalls an awkward email conversation wherein Yulia tries to obtain the phone number of whomever owns Yandex.Dengi account No. 41001653061014 (which belongs to GunLinux). They agree to talk over Skype, where low and behold it’s revealed that the Yulia uses the alias “Yulia Dikhtiar” in her Skype account, with an avatar that matches Dikhtar’s Vkontakte and Facebook pages.
Judging by the Skype transcript, GunLinux and Dikhtar actually flirted like a pair of horny idiots. Dikhtiar bolted when Nashi was mentioned, but the conversation itself wasn’t terribly edgy. Another LJ blogger by the name of Fezeev, on the other hand, reported a far more hostile, less hormone-influenced exchange on April 20th. In that conversation, Yulia Ivashova revealed that she had access to Fezeev’s personal bank account information, including ATM deposit times and locations. She claimed to know these details from “public information,” but combatively refused to name her sources (if Fezeev’s transcript is true). Here’s a small excerpt:
Yulia: Who transferred you the money to support Aleksei Navalny?
Fezeev: I took it from my salary and donated it to him.
Y: Not true, nine minutes before the transfer from your [Yandex.Dengi] account, the money was deposited into your bank account from a Moscow Credit ATM. There are no MKB ATMs in the vicinity of Yandex’s office, where you transferred the payment.
In the grand Nashi tradition, Dikhtiar’s online profile features her in seductive poses, showing off her legs in some photos and her cleavage in others. In the even broader tradition of the Internet, commenters made jokes about her attractiveness — fun that even Pribylovskii couldn’t entirely ignore. It wasn’t long before the RuNet found Yulia’s LiveJournal, her online CV, her Moi Krug profile, and so on. It was on Vkontakte that her Nashi connection was first noticed, which Potupchik later verified.
So there would seem to be two simple possibilities concerning Yulia Dikhtiar: either she is the person who made the calls and was acting as an agent of Nashi, or someone with a similar voice, who also has a Voronezh area code phone number, impersonated her on Skype, copying her full name and online avatar.
For the sake of argument, let’s say we find the first possibility more convincing. How then Nashi was able to target RosPil supporters? In his May 4th LJ post, before endorsing the FSB-Nashi alliance theory, Navalny himself suggested that perhaps certain researchers were able to discover various RosPil donators by searching the Web randomly for public announcements that so-and-so had given money to the organization. Consider Anton Nosik: pioneer of the RuNet and one of the most prominent bloggers to have received a call from Yulia. Nosik not only publicly announced his first donation to RosPil on February 3, 2011, but he encouraged others to give money, as well. Surely, neither Nashi nor any Sol’ gazette required special access to FSB leaked intelligence, in order to phone up Nosik and bug him about having slipped some cash to Navalny.
And then, if true, there’s the information Yulia had about Fezeev’s personal savings. Access to that kind of knowledge isn’t so easy to come by, and it would seem to increase the chances (indeed necessitate) that Yulia (whoever she is) is operating with the assistance of either the FSB (which we now know requested this information from Yandex) or a group of identity-theiving hackers.
A few anti-Navalny attack articles have hit the Web in the last week: two from the typically unsupportive Politkom.ru and one op-ed from Vedomosti of all places, by a guy named Igor’ Ashmanov. (That said, Vedomosti staff writer Sergei Smirnov authored a more pro-Navalny article days before, and there was a favorable editorial, as well.) Just like Potupchik’s LJ post mentioned above, all three attack pieces argued that Navalny stands to gain the most from this scandal, which supposedly will cost him little and boost his publicity significantly. However, the ‘кому это выгодно’ question is employed less as a genuine inquiry, it seems to me, and more as vehicle to ‘blame the victim.’ Ashmanov’s approach to the harassment of RosPil supporters is particularly thick-headed. He claims that it’s not possible to harass thousands of dissidents with “five stupid phone calls,” entirely ignoring the symbolism of violating Yandex.Dengi’s anonymity and showing that no one is safe to donate money privately. While it is true that donations to RosPil have momentarily spiked (clearly in protest against the intimidation of supporters), the long-term consequences of the privacy leak and phone calls scheme remains unknown and potentially very harmful to Navalny’s initiative to encourage the kind of passive financial support for watchdog activity that is so commonplace elsewhere in the world.