It was a routine bit of international diplomacy: two presidents speaking for an hour about “topical issues of the agenda of Ukraine-Kyrgyzstan relations”, as the press release on the website of the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko put it on Wednesday.
Poroshenko asked his counterpart about potential support for a forthcoming Ukrainian initiative at the UN to condemn Russian human rights abuses in annexed Crimea.
The only problem is that the Kyrgyz president, Almazbek Atambayev, says he never made the call.
Ukrainian authorities are scrambling to work out who Poroshenko spent an hour on the phone with. Suspicion is likely to fall on a pair of Russian hoaxers who have made a habit of embarrassing world leaders with fake calls, and whose pranks often seem to align with Russian state interests.
Alexei Stolyarov and Vladimir Kuznetsov, better known as Lexus and Vovan, made the headlines last year when they called Sir Elton John pretending to be the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. Putin later called the singer to assuage his embarrassment at falling for the hoax.
In April, editors at the New York Times held a conference call with a man claiming to be Poroshenko, after the newspaper received a letter complaining about coverage of Ukraine in its pages. It transpired the call was a hoax.
Poroshenko has attracted the attention of the pranksters on numerous occasions, but previously he has been impersonated rather than pranked himself. In February, Stolyarov and Kuznetsov reached the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, pretending to be Poroshenko.
Alexei Stolyarov (left) and Vladimir Kuznetsov at a cafe in Moscow, showing video of a prank on Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. Photograph: The Guardian
Stolyarov declined to comment when asked by the Guardian whether he was responsible for the fake Kyrgyz call.
It is one thing to fool a newspaper or celebrity, and quite another to be able to place hoax calls claiming to be a president calling his counterpart in another country. Such calls are usually set up using elaborate protocol and using special secure lines, prompting many to believe the pranksters must have help from Russia’s FSB security service.
Stolyarov and Kuznetsov have denied claims they work for or with the FSB. “We work for ourselves, nobody else,” Stolyarov told the Guardian in March.
The news item about the call was quietly removed from the Ukrainian president’s website, and on Thursday the Kyrgyz and Ukrainian foreign ministers spoke by telephone and attempted to smooth over the incident.
A Ukrainian foreign ministry spokeswoman said: “Both we and the Kyrgyz side are looking into this planned provocation. We will work out all the circumstances, including the technical details. It’s already clear that the goal of this kind of action is to disrupt Ukraine’s important UN initiatives over Crimea.”
By Shaun Walker, The Guardian