KYIV, Ukraine — The authorities here have generated headlines by their dogged pursuit of what the opposition calls a political witch-hunt against their rivals, chief among them the jailed former Prime Minister and Orange Revolution heroine Yulia Tymoshenko.
Already serving seven years for abuse of office and on a second trial for tax evasion, she was charged earlier this month on new accusations of ordering the murder of a rival politician sixteen years ago and faces life imprisonment.
But if the prosecution and exiling of former administration members has prompted international censure, a quieter campaign of intimidation by hacking and electronic surveillance ahead of a key summit with European leaders later this month has gained less attention — until now.
Although phone-tapping and following individuals are nothing new for the post-Soviet republic, the hacking of opposition leaders' emails and release of damaging documents has experts worried Ukraine may be following in the footsteps of more sophisticated authoritarian regimes in its neighborhood.
The Ukrainian internet has remained relatively open until recently in terms of both freedom of expression and government control. As late as last year, a report on online freedom by the watchdog Freedom House found that despite some notable cases of rights violations, Ukraine's “partly free” political status wasn’t based on what was taking place on the web.
“Ukraine has relatively liberal legislation governing the internet and access to information,” the report read, adding that cyberattacks were rare and that there was “no practice of institutionalized blocking or filtering, or a regulatory framework for censorship of content online.”
Those times may be over.
The opening salvo took place late last year, with the hacking of former Deputy Prime Minister Hyrhoriy Nemyria's email account and release of thousands of documents on a website called nemyrialeaks.com.
It was followed by a similar hack in December, this time of an account belonging to Yevgenia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister's daughter, and the release of documents on a site called zhuzhaleaks.com. They appeared to reveal the opposition's commissioning of articles in Western media and services of public relations firms using illegal payments through offshore accounts.
Zhuzhaleaks.com also posted what it said was correspondence between Yevgenia Tymoshenko and her divorced husband and information about her mother’s health, including $900,000 monthly bills for medical services in Germany. Government supporters say they were used for spiriting money out of the country illegally.
Opposition leaders say the documents posted online combine real correspondence with forgeries, saying the whole affair is a government-orchestrated move to discredit them. In December, a Kyiv court ruled Nemyria had acted illegally after Prosecutor General Renat Kuzmin said he had overseen the payment of $100 million for public relations services.
Independent experts confirm the suspicions. Viktoriya Siumar, director of the Institute of Mass Information, says the hacking operations’ large scale leaves little doubt the government is behind it.
“This was a planned special operation,” she said, adding that officials should have responded to the invasion of privacy, “which they have not.”
If true, the hacking of opposition emails would mark a milestone for Ukraine's democratic backslide since Viktor Yanukovych became president in 2010, putting it alongside Russia and Belarus, which have long used cyber-attacks to bully opposition activists.
“This is clearly a trend,” Siumar says. “The internet is becoming more important and the special services are seeing their work as a success.”
“I’m pessimistic about the future,” she adds. “This move will have far-reaching consequences.”
Journalists and other opposition figures have also seen transcripts of their phone conversations posted online. Among them, Sergei Leshchenko, deputy editor of the leading online news portal Ukrainska Pravda, believes he’s been targeted for his investigation of Yanukovych's luxury state residence, which was privatized under controversial circumstances. His email has also been hacked.
Phone-tapping and electronic surveillance is illegal under Ukrainian law, as is the purchase of what the security services call espionage tools: gadgets such as pens or glasses containing video and audio recorders. Listening to the private conversations of individuals facing legal charges, however, is legal. Some believe that’s prompted the opening of flimsy cases.
Legislator Serhiy Vlasenko, a lawyer who heads Tymoshenko's defense team and says his conversations have also recorded, last month said three cases were being brought against him. The charges include the alleged theft of a car he says he owns and the robbery of his ex-wife's mobile phone, for which he could be stripped of parliamentary immunity and sentenced to seven years in jail.
"They’re likely to arrest me in about three weeks," he said at the time. Three days later, he was banned from leaving the country to attend a meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.
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The crackdown has heightened questions about Ukraine’s direction in a geopolitical struggle for infuence.
Russia wants Ukraine to join a Moscow-led customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, which critics call a Soviet Union-lite.
Moscow has long used its natural gas sales to pressure Ukraine, most recently with a $7 billion bill for gas Ukraine didn’t use under a take-or-pay clause lawyers say has few chances of holding up in court.
The EU, meanwhile, pushed for an association agreement with Ukraine until talks were halted after Tymoshenko’s arrest. No bilateral summit was held last year, a first in 15 years.
EU leaders had harsh words for Kyiv following a parliamentary election in October the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe described as a “step backwards” for democracy.
The current crackdown gives little hope the EU-Ukraine summit on Feb. 25 will do much to improve ties.