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DDoSvidanie LiveJournal: Some Russian Bloggers Are Adamant That the Kremlin Is Testing Out Its Internet Hacking Arsenal Ahead of Election Season

Little Russian Girl at ComputerRussia's LiveJournal, the cult online blogging platform for free political discussion, is being sabotaged by hackers trying to impress Kremlin ideologues in the run-up to the election cycle, Russian bloggers claim. As RuNet becomes an increasingly powerful tool for opposition politicians, the Kremlin could be eager to have hackers in its wings who can disable it ­ or so the theory goes. In fact, other explanations have been aired, but mainstream blogger opinion seems to maintain that the state is behind two weeks of attacks on the uncensored blogging platform widely used by the opposition.

"Someone really wants LiveJournal to cease being a platform for open and serious discussion," Svetlana Ivannikova, the head of the blogging platform, wrote on Wednesday. On March 30 LiveJournal announced that it was under cyber-attack with its system being overloaded by thousands of computers ­ or bots ­ repeatedly accessing it. A second, more powerful distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack struck on April 4, followed by another on April 6. The site was temporarily inaccessible, provoking social networking doomsayers to proclaim the end of LiveJournal in colorful tweets, such as "DDoSvidanie" and a tearful ode to the site known as "Zh Zh" in Russian.

But even though computer analysts initially suggested that opposition blogs had been singled out by the hackers, bloggers were quick to moot state involvement. IT expert and prominent blogger Anton Nosik said that cyber-attacks of this scale require significant "financial and administrative resources," and blamed pro-Kremlin groups based on the apparent aims of the attack.

Ilya Yashin, the leader of the opposition Solidarity youth branch, agreed with this theory. "Considering the scale and continued length of the attack on LiveJournal, considering that it clearly required large resources, we can suppose that the attack is linked to the state in one way or another, or at least to the state authorities," said Yashin.

Speaking to Russia Profile, Nosik said: "The only reason to assume it is pro-government circles is the aim of the attack. There is a very clear and unambiguous pattern ­ every time there has been DDoS on the Russian Internet of a political character, it was directed at those who were targeted for character assassination by Nashi," referring to the most well-known pro-Kremlin youth group.

A Monday blog entry by Mariya Garnaeva of Internet security watchdog Kaspersky Lab, which eavesdrops on bots, reads that the LiveJournal attack actually began on March 26 and initially targeted Alexei Navalny, Russia's anti-corruption blogger warring who has targeted the United Russia ruling party in particular. However, subsequently the attacks started to target the 30 most popular blogs on the blogging site.

Andrei Soldatov, an expert on the security services who has also reported on pro-Kremlin hackers, was more guarded than Nosik. He recalled how a past smear campaign against opposition figures, using doctored video tapes, was widely blamed on Nashi, but instead turned out to be orchestrated by the youth wing of the United Russia ruling party, Molodaya Gvardiya. "I think it might be very close to the Kremlin group or the youth movements," said Soldatov. "But I cannot say for sure that this is the case. It could be other groups." There used to be a School for Kremlin Bloggers founded by political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, who has ties to First Deputy Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov, often cited as the author of the contemporary Russian political landscape. The pro-government school of 80 or so bloggers headed by Alexei Chadayev, the head of United Russia's political department, has supposedly been shut down.

Nonetheless, Chadayev is extremely aware of the growing importance of the Internet, especially with the parliamentary elections slated for this upcoming December, and presidential elections set for March of 2012. In an article in February, Soldatov quoted Chadayev as saying: "the 2011 State Duma elections will be the first in the history of our country in which the Internet-based campaign will be of equal or greater importance than the campaign in the traditional mass media."

But a Levada Center poll released on Wednesday hinted at the actual insignificance of the blogosphere as an influential forum for ideas. Asked to name three bloggers whose socio-political opinion they value, 95 percent of Russians were simply unable to answer. Only two percent of Russians mentioned Medvedev's blog, while two percent also cited Putin's blog ­ which the prime minister does not have. Less than one percent named Navalny and Kaspersky.

Nonetheless, Yashin said that in the last couple of years, the Internet has become "a fairly serious instrument in political struggle," since it allows various political factions not only to organize and coordinate their protests, but also to gather financing.

Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov is a case in point, said Yashin. Nemtsov coauthored a report entitled "Putin. Corruption," accusing Russia's powerful prime minister of presiding over rampant corruption and enriching his friends and family. He is gathering money to finance the printing of the pamphlets, and since the text was published on March 28 he has raised almost 700,000 rubles ($23,330). Nemtsov himself described the attack on LiveJournal as "pure politics" in an interview with Finam Radio this week. Navalny, who was supposed to be the initial target of the DDoS attacks, has also been raising money for his anti-corruption campaign.

A test run

Nosik said he does not thinks the attack was necessarily orchestrated by the Kremlin or Kremlin contractors because it is the first attack of its kind (therefore "a trial"), and also it is too far ahead of the election cycle. Instead, Nosik proposed that ambitious people looking to be in the pay of the Kremlin may have been trying to show what they are capable of doing. "Many spin doctors and political technologists are competing for Surkov's attention and approval for their action in the election year," said Nosik.

A seminal book by Belarusian Internet expert Evgeny Morozov entitled the "Net Delusion" has fueled belief that the Internet actually helps authoritarian regimes to police the opposition. Contrary to the common belief that the Internet somehow facilitates the free exchange of democratic ideas, its uncensored nature in fact makes it vulnerable to state manipulation.

Still, if this cyber-attack is indeed linked to the state, then its success was dubious, since it has generated so much media commotion and speculation.

Nonetheless, Nosik said, pro-Kremlin groups as well as Kremlin groups have often employed methods intended to quell the opposition that have instead backfired. So it cannot be ruled out that these attacks will abate. "If you look at all the activities aimed at [opposition leader Eduard] Limonov, or Alexei Navalny or Boris Nemtsov; none of those acts of black PR, provocation, or character assassination proved to be efficient in the short term or in the long term. But still, somebody paid for them," said Nosik.

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