Russian Prime Minister's Twitter Is Truthful for an Hour
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper picked a bad time to unfollow his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, on Twitter because he had "no interest in following Russian propaganda." He missed out on the most remarkable 44 minutes in the bland life of @MedvedevRussia -- which enjoyed a brief spell under the control of a hacker much braver than the Russian prime minister and as averse as Harper to Kremlin evangelism.
The first tweet appeared today at 10:12 a.m. Moscow time: "I am resigning. I am ashamed of the government's actions. Forgive me." If whoever had commandeered the account had stopped there, the media may have run with the story. @MedvedevRussia is a verified official page for the Russian prime minister who, in his previous role as president, tried to pass himself off as something of a progressive. He accepted an iPhone from Steve Jobs, though it didn't work in Russia because it was tied to AT&T, and was a pioneer of social networking among the Moscow elite. Putin doesn't use the Internet, leaving that to his aides.
To anyone accustomed to Medvedev's boring Twitter fare -- congratulations, condolences, banal pictures from stage-managed trips to the Russian heartland -- the tweet was a bomb. It shouted open rebellion on a grander scale than the recent Facebook mutiny by deputy economics minister Sergei Belyakov, who apologized for a government decision to raid Russians' pension savings and was promptly fired.
To anyone wondering if the prime minister had received a better job offer, @MedvedevRussia explained that he'd always wanted to be a freelance photographer -- echoing Medvedev's public statements calling photography his hobby.
There was more to come. "We can go back to the 1980's," @MedvedevRussia tweeted. "If that is my Kremlin colleagues' goal, it will soon be achieved." "Russian citizens should not suffer because of the top leadership's problems with common sense." "Crimea is not ours, please retweet." "We should actually think about banning electricity. It's safer that way."
By then it was clear even to the slowest of Medvedev's followers that the account had been hijacked. "Please give Medvedev his Twitter back, it's the only thing he actually controls," anti-Kremlin blogger Oleg Kozyrev tweeted, referring to Medvedev's irrelevance under Putin's autocratic rule.
Soon, @MedvedevRussia was taken offline; when it returned, the offending entries were gone. "I have no information at this point, but I can assume with a high degree of probability that this was a case of hacking," Putin's press secretary Dmitri Peskov told state news service RIA Novosti.
Twitter accounts are easy to break into. A Russian hacker collective recently uncovered by U.S. firm Hold Security has been peddling hundreds of millions of username-password combinations to spammers. My own account has been hacked at least twice. A hacker collective calling itself Anonymous International claims to have broken into Medvedev's personal e-mail account -- a free one on Russia's Yandex Mail service -- which was seemingly tied to several social media accounts.
It's a shame, though, that the remarkable string of tweets did not come from Medvedev himself, the man who embodied Russian liberals' hopes for a while when some hoped, as recently as three years ago, that he might run for a second term and put Russia on a modernization course. "I don't believe Medvedev has been hacked," art dealer Marat Guelman tweeted. "It's Putin who is not real: He's been substituted."
Activist lawyer Lyubov Sobol spoke for me, too, when she tweeted: "For about an hour, we had a prime minister we didn't have to be ashamed of." That was just virtual reality, though: The real Medvedev has backed Putin at every step, announcing, for instance, the food embargo that was Russia's response to Western sanctions.
Such is the atmosphere in Moscow these days that some saw the hack as part of a Kremlin plot to ban the social networks. The government already requires Russians to provide proof of identity to log into public Wi-Fi networks, and a further crackdown is widely expected. That's reality; an idealistic Medvedev apologizing and offering Crimea back to Ukraine was just an hour's happy delusion.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at email@example.com