A leading online tabloid has published opposition leader Boris Nemtsov’s private phone conversations, during which he denigrated other Russian opposition activists. Nemtsov claims his phone was illegally bugged and that the Kremlin is behind the leak.
Nemtsov is one of the leaders of the unregistered opposition group the People’s Freedom Party. He took an active part in organising a rally against unfair parliamentary elections on 24 December. He has called the publication of the phone conversations “a provocation” and an attempt by prime-minister Vladimir Putin and Kremlin chief of staff Vladislav Surkov to “wreck the rally on 24 December and sow discord into opposition involved in organising the rally”.
The allegation has been bolstered by the fact that the tabloid LifeNews is a part of the National Media Group controlled by tycoon Jury Kovalchuk, known as a Putin supporter. The Russian Investigative Committee announced they would begin “procedural checking” into the publication of Nemtsov’s phone conversations. But despite the fact that the calls were illegally recorded, LifeNews is unlikely to face the same sanctions as the British tabloid The News of the World: those loyal to Putin don’t usually lose in Russian courts.
LifeNews didn’t specify how it had obtained the recordings of the phone calls, but such publication violates articles 137 and 138 of the Russian Criminal Code (invasion of personal privacy and violation of personal correspondence, telephone conversations, postal, telegraphic and other messages). Together with human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, with whom his conversation LifeNews published, Nemtsov said he would file a suit against the tabloid.
Life News editor-in-chief Ashot Gabrelyanov defended the publication on business grounds: audience and advertising increase. “News about Nemtsov is in great demand” Gabrelyanov told Lenta.ru news agency.
Most of the conversations published by LifeNews relate to preparations for post-Soviet Russia’s biggest anti-Putin rally on 10 December and an even bigger rally, expected on 24 December. Nemtsov vilified other activists including environmental campaigner Yevgeniya Chirikova; Left Front activist, A Just Russia deputy Ilya Ponomarev and popular blogger and minority shareholders’ rights advocate Alexei Navalny. Nemtsov published an apology on his blog soon after the publications, saying that “he did wrong” and that “one should control his emotions even when talking to friends on the phone”.
His addressees accepted apologies stressing that the Kremlin would have done anything to split popularity, and affirming that the attempt had definitely failed. Alexey Navalny, who was released on 21 December after 15 days of administrative arrest for having participated in a protest rally, said “nobody was likely to have illusions of how they comment on each other off the record”.
In public, Russian opposition is still united to achieve one common aim: fair elections.