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Friday, June 30, 2006

The Only Way the Crass, Pathetic Neo-Soviets Can Get Support is to Buy it

La Russophobe has previously reported on the use of a Neo-Soviet Komsomol to protest American refusal to extradite Chechens to Russia. Here is more shocking detail on the depths to which Neo-Soviet Russia is prepared to sink, via Redeem the Vote:

How U.S. Citizens Mysteriously March For Kremlin Causes

Russian Émigrés Pay Them To Flail Chechen Rebels As TV Moscow Films It All

By ALAN CULLISON and JAMES BANDLER
June 24, 2006

NEW YORK -- Hoisting signs and American flags, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in a park here for a noisy protest. An organizer explained the sponsors' eclectic mission: "We are fighting against terrorism, hunger and inequality," he said.

Demonstrators had a simpler goal: getting paid. "Where's the moneyman?" shouted one of them, Pat Bradley.

Mr. Bradley said he and his wife, Kellie, recovering heroin addicts, had run into a rally organizer that morning outside their methadone clinic and were promised $15 each if they would ride a bus to a park in the Queens borough of New York City and chant slogans for 15 minutes. Mr. Bradley says he alternated shouts of "Stop the terrorism!" with a more mercantile cry: "Show me the money!"

The rally last December was one of nearly a dozen paid-for protests organized by Russian émigrés in the U.S. in the past two years. They spent $150,000 to $200,000 in some months, accounting records indicate, to rally thousands of demonstrators near spots such as United Nations headquarters and the World Trade Center site. State-controlled Russian television, whose content is closely guided by Kremlin handlers, covered some of the events, often as the only news organ present, showing video of them on the evening news back home.

Organizers said the effort was funded by private individuals they declined to name. Some former insiders of the campaign told a different story: that both its instructions and its funding came from Moscow. Specifically, they said it came from the Russian founder of a youth group that staunchly supports the Kremlin and has gotten lavish support from the Kremlin in return. This account was supported by emails and other documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

A member of the Russian youth group disputed the account, and it remains impossible to say who was behind the campaign. It coincided with efforts by Russian officials to mold opinion both at home and abroad on issues such as Chechnya, where a breakaway movement has been put down violently by the Putin government. The Kremlin argues that Chechen separatists, responsible for a bloody siege at an elementary school in southern Russia in 2004, are no different from al Qaeda terrorists. Some of the rallies demanded that Washington extradite alleged Chechen terrorists living in America.

The U.S. organizers were led by a Russian-born man in the Boston area, formerly a taxi driver, who recruited fellow émigrés. There are indications the organizers paid a New Yorker to present a local face for the movement. But the script for the campaign began to unravel after one of the Russian émigrés contacted U.S. authorities, as well as the Journal.

That man is Yuri Levintoff, a 31-year-old Massachusetts resident. He said he grew concerned about the ethics and legality of paying people to protest. "As I learned more and more, I realized this was not only something I didn't want to be involved with but something that should be made public," said Mr. Levintoff, who provided access to what he said were financial records, emails and other documents detailing the demonstration campaign's activities.

Mr. Levintoff said he was recruited in 2004 by the Boston-area taxi driver, Boris Barshevsky. Approached outside his home there, Mr. Barshevsky at first denied involvement but then said that he was, in fact, the top organizer of the demonstrations. He said he financed them himself and received no funding from Russia. Told of emails and documents suggesting otherwise, Mr. Barshevsky asserted these had been forged by Mr. Levintoff. He provided no substantiation. Mr. Levintoff denied forging anything.

Russian state television, called First Channel, has portrayed the U.S. demonstrators as part of an international movement in support of extraditing militant Chechens to Russia. A person familiar with the state television channel's operations said that influential people within Russia had ordered it to cover the U.S. demonstration movement, even though "at First Channel, everyone knows it is a fake." This person said officials of the channel were told the first U.S. rally was organized by a Russian youth group called Walking Together.

Walking Together's founder is Vasily Yakemenko, an ardent foe of Chechen militants. Visitors to the office of a second youth group he manages, Nashi ("Our Guys" in Russian), must step on a doormat with a picture of a Chechen rebel. Mr. Yakemenko has told a Russian newspaper he visits the Kremlin every two weeks and the presidential office more often. Last month, President Vladimir Putin played host to him and 34 "commissars" of one of his youth groups at the president's Black Sea retreat. State-controlled TV covered the event heavily.

Mr. Yakemenko didn't respond to questions or requests for an interview. The Kremlin declined to comment. Sergei Belokonev, a leader of one of Mr. Yakemenko's groups, which has bused thousands of people to Moscow for flag-waving rallies, called the idea of Russian-financed demonstrations in the U.S. "complete nonsense."

Flurry of Emails

Mr. Levintoff, the Russian émigré who quit the campaign of U.S. demonstrations, asserts that Mr. Yakemenko kicked it off in the summer of 2004 with a flurry of emails to Mr. Barshevsky, the Boston-area taxi driver. Mr. Levintoff says Mr. Barshevsky shared these emails with him and other recruits. The first email, dated July 2004, said its writer had been "active in organizing demonstrations and protest meetings and the like. Now it's been proposed that I do the same in your part of the world."

Paid protestors rally at Ground Zero in June 2005

Another email said there was plenty of cash and the budget could be big -- $25,000, $200,000 or $20 million -- as long as the campaign showed results.

Paul Nissan, a Los Angeles activist and co-founder of an antiterrorism group, said Mr. Barshevsky phoned him in 2004 offering "unlimited" funding for demonstrations that would spotlight Chechen terrorism. Mr. Nissan said he organized one rally on Sept. 11, 2004, in Los Angeles, but later fell out with the Russian émigrés. "They were interested in a rent-a-mob kind of thing, and we kind of explained that we don't do that sort of thing here," Mr. Nissan said.

Organizers created scripts to keep everyone on-message. If asked whether protesters are being paid, said one sheet, state that "you have been disinformed." Explain that protesters are "plain and simple folks" who are united by "desires to dispose the world of terror" -- and who have no phone number or office.

According to Mr. Levintoff, organizers tried to conceal Russian involvement by using as a front man Curtis Bryant, a New York resident who calls himself a "guerrilla marketer." Mr. Levintoff showed an email to rally organizers requesting that someone explain to Mr. Bryant "once more [that] he is leader of the movement and its founder.... Explain that we simply joined him."

Mr. Bryant said he organized demonstrations on his own, motivated because he nearly lost a friend on Sept. 11, 2001. Nobody was paid to protest, Mr. Bryant stated in an interview at the December rally in Queens. However, after the rally an organizer was seen paying demonstrators, and numerous protesters told the Journal that the only reason they attended was to be paid.

At that December demonstration, organizers tried out a new theme: the flawed U.S. government response to hurricane Katrina. On a blustery day, school buses stopped in front of Rufus King Park in Queens and dropped off demonstrators. Mr. Barshevsky and other Russian émigrés huddled nearby, smoking and talking on cellphones.

A camera crew videotaped the rally and several short speeches by organizers, who said they were from a group called Unite the World Against Terrorism. Their message: The U.S. failed New Orleans and it will abandon us, too. After some desultory cheers, the crowd was dismissed and sent back to the buses.

On one bus, filled with men from a homeless shelter on Wards Island in the East River, some grew impatient. "Get my money, mother-f-!" shouted one man as an organizer passed. As tensions rose, an organizer stepped aboard and peeled off $20 bills from a thick wad.

Fuming Over Pay

The payment left some on the bus fuming, saying they thought the promised $20 an hour would cover travel time, too. George Pantera, who said he sometimes stays in homeless shelters, complained of a wasted morning. He easily could have made the same $20 "in the 'hood," he said. He called the rally "a scam."

Pat and Kellie Bradley, the self-described recovering heroin addicts, weren't complaining. They said they had been down to their last $8 before the rally. The cash would help pay a debt for cigarettes.

All the same, Mr. Bradley found the rally puzzling. "Strikes me as funny that this guy buys his protests," Mr. Bradley said. "I mean, what good is that?"

Early on, the campaign got a boost when Mr. Barshevsky, the Boston-area taxi driver, befriended two Russian-émigré merchants in New York who sell jewelry online. The two merchants had started a nonprofit organization after Sept. 11, 2001, which they called the International Fund for Protection of Victims of Crimes and Terrorist Activity. Mr. Barshevsky became this fund's finance chief, and the merchants' two-room office in the diamond district of midtown Manhattan became a center of the campaign, Mr. Levintoff said.

Nicholas Fiore, an accountant who has done work for the fund, said that "tens of thousands" of dollars flowed into its bank accounts in 2004 and 2005, money that he said he was told came from Mr. Barshevsky. One of the merchants, Denis Stepansky, said he helped Mr. Barshevsky organize rallies. He declined to discuss their financial dealings.

An exchange of emails shown to the Journal by Mr. Levintoff stated that as much as $400,000 was needed to kick off the campaign. One note, which Mr. Levintoff said had been sent to Moscow, asked that a first installment of $80,000 be wired to the International Fund.

Mr. Levintoff said organizers took pains to hide the involvement of backers in Moscow. He said he was forwarded one email that originated with Sergei Belokonev, a top official in Mr. Yakemenko's Nashi youth group in Russia. The email asked that someone outside Russia register some Web sites that could help promote the U.S. demonstrations. "The hand of Moscow, if it comes to light, will only weaken our position," said this email. Mr. Belokonev didn't respond to questions about the email.

The first rally organized with the help of the jewelry merchants' International Fund was on Sept. 11, 2004, near the World Trade Center site in New York, with several hundred demonstrators. At later rallies, hundreds of residents of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, most of them African-American, marched alongside Russian-born pensioners bused in from Brighton Beach, an ethnic-Russian enclave in Brooklyn.

Some rallies included elderly Russian émigrés from Brooklyn Jewish centers. Costs discussed in one email about the campaign referred to $40,000 to hire 200 activists for three hours, as well as $30,000 for "Jews and other extras."

Mr. Levintoff said that one 2005 rally in Harlem drew police attention when the crowd of demonstrators gathered for a "photo op" and were spotted giving gang hand signals.

A reporter for a Russian-language newspaper said he was tipped last spring that someone was "putting T-shirts on pensioners and paying them to go protest" near the World Trade Center site. The reporter, Vladimir Chernomorsky, said he went to the site and saw hundreds of people carrying pictures of Chechen extremists and posing for a photo. He said the only news organization there besides himself was Russian state television.

He wrote a piece for his newspaper, the New Russian Word, questioning who had paid the demonstrators and saying that payment varied from person to person. Russian pensioners from Brooklyn got $35, he wrote, but African-Americans and Hispanics only $20. Mr. Chernomorsky later wrote in his newspaper that when he attended a rally near the U.N. last June, one of the organizers smashed his tape recorder.

Soon, the organizers had a bigger problem: Mr. Levintoff.

He said he grew concerned that the paid-protest campaign might violate U.S. tax or money-laundering laws. His worries grew, he said, after Russian state TV interviewed him at a rally near the World Trade Center site in June 2005 and identified him as a protest leader. Mr. Levintoff said that last August he told Mr. Barshevsky, the former Boston-area taxi driver, that he was bowing out.

Mr. Stepansky, the jewelry merchant, alleged that Mr. Levintoff stole from the International Fund, forged financial documents and sent "fabrications" to the media and law enforcement. He declined repeated requests to substantiate his allegations, which Mr. Levintoff denied.

Mr. Levintoff said he sent a final note to the International Fund and its lawyers. "I am no longer willing to be associated or involved in any way, with a so-called International Fund for Protection of Victims of Crimes and Terrorist Activity, or a fake 'social movement' called Unite the World Against Terror," Mr. Levintoff wrote. He then contacted U.S. law-enforcement officials. Authorities have taken no action

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