Russian opposition activists are accusing the authorities of seeking to sow discord in their ranks after a pro-Kremlin website posted recordings of their telephone conversations just days before mass antigovernment protests.
In the recordings, posted on the website Lifenews.ru, leading opposition figure Boris Nemtsov refers to environmental campaigner Yevgenia Chirikova "just a bitch, or else an idiot."
In another recording, he disparaged protestors as "hamsters," "vegetables," and "penguins."
In a statement
posted on his blog, Nemtsov immediately apologized for his remarks and accused the Kremlin of masterminding their release in an effort to split the opposition ahead of antigovernment demonstrations scheduled for December 24.
"I apologize to...everyone who was offended and insulted in my personal phone conversations," Nemtsov wrote. I was wrong. I need to restrain my emotions and watch every word I say, even when talking with family and friends on the phone," he wrote.
And Chirikova quickly expressed support for Nemtsov. "Decent people do not listen to other people's conversations," she wrote on Twitter. "I hope that Boris sees those who organized and implemented this leak in the dock."
The two then appeared together
on Dozhd TV (Rain TV) where Nemtsov reiterated his apology, saying it was "deeply unsettling" that his conversations had been made public. He described the comments he made in his phone calls as a "mistake" and stressed that he doesn't swear in public and is normally "very polite with my colleagues, comrades, and partners."
Chirikova, for her part, urged opposition supporters not to be "distracted by anything secondary."
Russian opposition activist Yevgenia Chirikova
"Boris was absolutely right when he said that everybody should come to the rally on December 24 and we need to think what to do next, all together," she added.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Nemtsov's attorney, Vadim Prokhorov, indicated that he will appeal to law-enforcement authorities to open a criminal investigation into the matter.
"Someone illegally tapped and recorded [Boris Nemtsov's phone conversations] and passed them on to this tabloid website for publication," he said. "I don't believe this happened without the participation of certain rodents from the presidential administration."
Prokhorov's choice of words could be interpreted as a reference to acting Kremlin chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, whose surname means "marmot" or "groundhog" in English.
Prokhorov maintained that according to the Russian Criminal Code, releasing private telephone conversations is that can be punished with a jail sentence.
He stressed that the law "stipulates up to four years in prison for the violation of the privacy of telephone conversations."
"We hope the Investigative Committee will investigate and determine who is tapping the telephone conversations of our opposition politicians," he said.
Opposition figures have noted that Lifenews.ru, which posted the audio recordings, is owned by NewsMedia-Rus, a holding connected to Yury Kovalchuk, who is a close ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
The release of Nemtsov's phone conversations is reminiscent of an incident in October when anticorruption blogger and opposition figure Aleksei Navalny's personal email account was hacked and its contents posted on an anonymous website registered in Kazakhstan.
Creating A Schism
Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service, security analyst Aleksei Kondaurov, a former KGB general, suggested the leak has all the hallmarks of a Kremlin-sponsored smear campaign.
"It is a leak seeking to create a schism in the opposition," he said. "There can also be many other reasons. It can be used to discredit the opposition. Much of the tabloid press is under the control of the presidential administration; they can circulate information in many ways.
"And these days it isn't a problem to tap opposition figures' conversations. I think Nemtsov, [Solidarity leader Ilya] Yashin, and other active members of the opposition are under surveillance."
Kondaurov added that without a court order it is illegal to tap somebody's telephone and even with a court order, such activity is only allowed to investigate a crime.
The phone calls were recorded ahead of a rally on December 10, which ultimately attracted tens of thousands to central Moscow to protest electoral fraud.
Prior to those protests, Nemtsov and Chirikova had disagreed over tactics. Chirikova wanted to hold an unsanctioned demonstration near the Kremlin while Nemtsov sought to get official permission to use another location.
In one conversation with an unidentified listener, Nemtsov accused Chirikova of "slinging mud" at him by accusing him of being in cahoots with the Moscow authorities.
In another, he stressed the need to hold a sanctioned demonstration in order get "white collar" workers who "were scared to death of falling under police batons" onto the streets.
He referred to these types of protesters as "hamsters," "vegetables," and "frightened penguins."
In her Dozhd TV appearance, Chirikova dismissed the leak as a diversionary tactic and a provocation by the authorities while making specific reference to the ruling United Russia party, which has been dubbed "the party of swindlers and thieves" by opposition activists.
"The swindlers and thieves are doing everything possible now to distract us from the struggle against the swindlers and thieves," she said.
"It is their tactic. [On December 19,] they did something absolutely vile by publishing personal information. This is absolutely disgusting and revolting."
Written by Brian Whitmore based on reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service and agency reports