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Analysis & Opinion
20.12.11 Notorious Nemtsov
By Dan Peleschuk

On Monday Russian tabloid portal Life News leaked recordings of private telephone conversations between opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and a handful of other activists, in which Nemtsov viciously derided his fellow opposition leaders and even criticized the peaceful protesters who flocked to Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square two weeks ago. Stuck in a moment of shock and embarrassment, Nemtsov and others have attempted to exploit the incident as a Kremlin “provocation” – a move that, despite Nemtsov’s foul tongue, might just work, especially just days ahead of another massive planned protest.

Nemtsov, a co-leader of the unregistered Party of National Freedom (PARNAS), has long held a reputation as somewhat of an opposition celebrity, given his outsized personality and near-ubiquity in the world of Russian opposition politics. A frequenter of opposition rallies, Nemtsov is often at the head of the crowd and the first on stage, employing his characteristically deep and resonant voice to rally protestors – whose ranks have now swelled in recent weeks to include everyday, middle-class Russians – against the establishment.

Yet when that same voice was recorded dishing out a slew of disturbingly nasty remarks about his fellow opposition activists, it sent observers into a frenzy. Nemtsov, it seems, was caught red-handed: Life News published on its Web site nine private conversations between him and Solidarnost activist Ilya Yashin, Just Russia deputy Ilya Ponomaryov and journalist Sergei Parkhomenko, among others, in which he trashed many of the figures who have helped maintain the wave of protests against the authorities in recent weeks. The hardest hit – besides, perhaps, the protesters themselves, whom he called “hamsters and cowardly penguins” – was environmentalist and opposition leader Yevgenia Chirikova, whom Nemtsov cast as “scum” who “is begging me for money.”

Both, however, were quick to resolve the incident and painted the affair as a provocation by the Kremlin to stir up dissent in the opposition ranks ahead of the planned mass rally on Saturday, which promises to bring to the streets at least as many demonstrators as had gathered on Bolotnaya Square on December 10. Appearing jointly – smiling and in good spirits – on the Dozhd Internet TV channel, both Nemtsov and Chirikova held their ground and stated that the smear tactic would not distract the opposition from its goal of holding the rally on Saturday. “The main goal of this provocation is obvious: to prevent the massive demonstration on December 24 on Prospekt Sakharova, and the other goal is to create a division in the opposition and the demonstration’s organization committee – to make enemies amongst ourselves,” Nemtsov said. “I can say right now: the goal was not reached,” Nemtsov said.

Moreover, Nemtsov sought to exploit the scandal by highlighting the illegality of wiretapping a private citizen’s phone. In a formal letter of apology posted in his LiveJournal blog and the Web site of Echo of Moscow, titled “Forgive Me,” he attacked the move as a violation of articles 137 and 138 of the criminal code, which defend against the invasion of personal privacy and from the violation of secret correspondence, respectively. Local media reported shortly after that he intends to submit the case to the investigative committee.

For a scandal that seemed poised to tear apart the already fragile opposition movement in Russia, the fallout has been remarkably calm. After the appearance on Dozhd, Chirikova reaffirmed her support for Nemtsov and told Russia Profile that she believes the recordings were made by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) “on the order of crooks and thieves” and leaked to Life News to discredit the opposition leaders. “I understand that these crooks and thieves are spending our tax dollars to climb into an individual’s private sphere – I see this as disgusting,” she said.

Others claim that the latest public embarrassment may actually play into the opposition’s hands. Alexei Venediktov, the venerable editor of Echo of Moscow – and himself a victim of one of Nemtsov’s barbs – echoed Chirikova’s remarks that the move, if in fact ordered by the authorities, may strike a personal chord among anti-establishment Russians. “I think that more people will come to the protests now because they’ve put themselves in Nemtsov’s shoes and understand that their own phones can be tapped and leaked into the media,” he told Vedomosti on December 20. “Every ordinary citizen has felt hurt by this violation of the Constitution.”

Experts, too, expressed doubt that the scandal would derail the opposition movement ahead of the next big demonstration. Pavel Salin, an analyst at the Center for Political Assessments, noted that many protesters have traditionally identified themselves with a cause rather than a particular leader. “They come out to protest against the authorities and today’s politics, and not for Nemtsov or Vladimir Ryzhkov, or whoever else,” he said.
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