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What is “kompromat” and how does it work?

The Russian art of blackmail has historically been used as an effective political weapon.

When the heads of America’s intelligence agencies informed President-elect Donald J. Trump last week that Russia might have collected compromising personal material on him, the possibility was raised that he could be a victim of a time-honored Russian intelligence tactic known as “kompromat.”

The explosive allegations contained in an unverified and salacious  report prepared by a former British intelligence operative as opposition political research against Trump, have now been made public. The allegations remain unverified, and without corroboration from someone inside Putin’s inner circle, their veracity is unlikely to ever be proven.

The accusations contained in the report, published in full by Buzzfeed, are extraordinary. They include allegations that  the Russian government has been “cultivating, supporting, and assisting Trump for at least five years,” and that Russian spies exploited the president-elect’s “personal obsessions and sexual perversion” to gather compromising material. According to the report, Russian intelligence has sufficient material on Trump to blackmail him but have agreed not to use it as leverage due to the “high levels of voluntary co-operation forthcoming from his team.”

The Kremlin has denied the claim it has kompromat — a Russian word literally meaning “compromising material” — on Trump. According to the New York Times, a spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry called the accusations that Russia has collected material on the president-elect that it could use for political leverage against him “mind-boggling nonsense” and “outrageous drivel.”  At a press conference on Wednesday, Trump also denied the claims and denounced publication of the allegations as “fake news.”

Kompromat has become a part of the political culture in Russia. Nearly everyone within Russia’s business and political elite has at one time or another collected and stored potentially compromising material on their political opponents for future use. Kompromat can be real or fabricated, and generally involves drugs, prostitutes, sexual escapades, sleazy business deals, illicit financial schemes, or embezzlement.

During the Cold War, the use of kompromat was a favoured tactic by the KGB. Hotel rooms across the Soviet Union were bugged and fitted with tiny cameras to surreptitiously record illicit dalliances between western politicians, journalists, businessmen and KGB-hired prostitutes.

More recently, Russian intelligence and political officials have used kompromat to settle scores or to discredit government critics. Kompromat thrived in the 1990s during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, thousands of intelligence personnel suddenly found themselves without a job. Skilled in information warfare and looking for work, they offered their expertise in political blackmail and character assassination to anyone who could pay.

In 1999, Yury Skuratov, at the time Russia’s prosecutor general, was the victim of kompromat after he started investigating corruption inside the Kremlin. He was forced to resign after a grainy tape featuring a man resembling Skuratov in bed with two prostitutes was broadcast on national television. The head of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, held a press conference claiming that the man caught on tape was indeed Skuratov. The FSB chief at the time just happened to be the now President Vladimir Putin. With Skuratov’s resignation, the corruption investigation ended.

While kompromat is an old trick, it has taken on a different and at times more sinister twist in the cyberspace age. To silence and discredit opponents, Russian cyber warriors have planted child pornography on the computers of Kremlin critics. Cyber attacks have become a favored political weapon to use against government opponents. They are hard to trace, giving the Kremlin plausible deniability.

Kompromat can be an effective political weapon. Faced with the destruction of their lives, marriages, reputations, and careers, victims often have little choice but to capitulate to blackmail and intimidation.

If Russia did actually have kompromat against Trump, would it use it? The United States and its Western allies no doubt have their own compromising material on members of the Kremlin’s inner circle and perhaps even on Putin himself, such as the scope of his financial and business interests in Russia and the size of his personal fortune.

Perhaps we are entering an era of “Mutually Assured Kompromat Destruction,” and we will never learn what, if anything, the Kremlin has on Trump.

Richard Maher is a research fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies

Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party leader Luigi Di Maio. CREDIT: GETTY
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Five Star’s “just fix it!” politics and the new age of digital populism

 In the Italian election, Five Star made radical and exciting promises – like a monthly universal basic income of around €780.

One evening in 2004, after finishing a performance of his comedy show Black Out, Beppe Grillo was approached by a tall, austere-looking man called Gianroberto Casaleggio, an IT specialist who ran a web consulting firm. He told Grillo that he could create a blog for him that would transform Italian politics. The internet, Casaleggio explained, would change everything. Political parties and newspaper editors were no longer needed. They could be “disintermediated”.

Grillo, a household name in Italy, was not particularly interested in technology but he was interested in politics. The following year the pair created the promised blog and Grillo began writing about cronyism, green issues and the power of the web to smash what he considered a corrupt, elitist and closed political system. Thousands, then millions, of frustrated Italians flocked to his site. They began using another website,, to gather offline to discuss Grillo’s latest post, and co-ordinate campaigns and rallies. It was heady stuff.

In 2007, this fledgling movement held Vaffanculo Day (which roughly translates to “fuck off day”), an event directed at the suits in charge. Grillo crowd-surfed the thousands who’d turned out in Bologna’s main square in a red dingy. Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the respected centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, wrote an editorial titled “The barbaric invasion of Beppe Grillo”.

In the age of Russian trolls and algorithmic ads, it’s easy to forget how optimistic the mood around digital politics was in the late Noughties. Occupy, the Pirate Party and Barack Obama all seemed to presage the end of tired old hierarchies. They were getting a digital upgrade: open, inclusive and more democratic. Grillo led the charge: in 2009 he declared that his band of online followers would stand in elections as the Five Star Movement. The group refused state funding, capped its MPs’ salaries at the average national wage, and pledged to publish all proposed bills online three months before approval to allow for public comment. All major policy decisions would be taken by votes on the blog, including candidate selections.

Seasoned political analysts dismissed Five Star as a bunch of bloggers and kids, led by a clown. But the movement started achieving local successes, especially in Italy’s poorer south. By 2012 there were 500 local groups and in the following year’s general election, Five Star won 25 per cent of the vote. Analysts repeatedly predicted that normal service would be resumed – but it never was.

In the Italian general election earlier this month, Five Star won 32 per cent of the vote, and 227 seats, easily making it the largest single party. (Grillo, who is 69, distanced himself from Five Star before this triumph. He remains the “guarantor”, but the new leader is 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio.) In a hung parliament, Five Star is currently in a stalemate with Italy’s right-wing alliance (the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Brothers of Italy), which collectively secured more seats.

While Five Star has declared its commitment to direct democracy, many major decisions are taken by a small cadre, which has alienated some early supporters. Its occasional dalliances with power – the current mayor of Rome is Five Star’s Virginia Raggi – have been largely unsuccessful. Yet more than any other movement in Europe, Five Star demonstrates how digital upstarts can demolish years of cosy centrist consensus. Meet-ups are full of sparky, motivated activists – rather like the Corbynite Momentum – who combine online and offline techniques to deliver their message.

Five Star’s political ideas appear radical and exciting, especially to places blighted by economic stagnation. In the Italian election, Five Star promised a monthly universal basic income of around €780 for every adult.

Yet the movement’s rise also reveals the darker side of digital politics. Five Star is unashamedly populist and divisive, pitting the good, honest, ordinary citizen against the out-of-touch professional political class. Ever noticed how all populists, whether left or right, seem to love social media? Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen, Syriza and, of course, Donald Trump are all avid adopters. It’s partly because short, emotional messages, the populist stock-in-trade, spread so well online. Grillo frequently insults his opponents – he used to call the former Italian prime minister Mario Monti “Rigor Montis” – and new Five Star leader Di Maio recently called for the immediate halt of the “sea taxi service” that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean. There’s a receptive online audience for such content. And the blog is central to Five Star, just as Twitter is to Trump, because, it says, it allows it to circumnavigate the self-interested establishment, and deliver “the truth” straight to the people.

But the love affair runs deeper than clickable posts. The internet is inculcating all of us with new, unrealistic expectations. I call it “just fix it!” politics. Everything online is fast and personalised, answers are simple and immediate. The unhappy compromise and frustrating plod of politics looks increasingly inadequate by comparison, which fuels impatience and even rage.

Populists promise to cut through the tedium with swift and obvious answers, and in that sense they are tuned in to how we live as consumers. By contrast, centrist parties have struggled in the digital age because their watery, dull promises are weighed down by practical know-how and association with power. (“Boring! Traitors!”)

The rage of the jilted lover knows few bounds. This is the problem with all populist movements: what happens when things aren’t as easy as promised? A few days after Five Star’s stunning election result, dozens of young Italians turned up at job centres in Puglia, demanding their €780 monthly basic income. Should Five Star form a government, millions of Italians will turn up with them – and demand a lot more than a few hundred euros. 

Jamie Bartlett is the author of “Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World” (Windmill Books)

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game