|Tuesday, 17 September 2002|
Tapped phones:Soviet-era scourge rears ugly head in modern Russia
MOSCOW, (AFP) It's a Soviet-era scourge that seems to have never let up: phone tapping. And more and more Russian politicians are finding themselves on the receiving end of scandals sparked by their secret talks being suddenly aired in public.
The practice of compiling "kompromat" - a Communist-era slang term for information secretly collected to slander a powerful political opponent - was well documented in the days when the KGB ruled supreme. For decades, people's tapped phones made funny clicks and odd voices inexplicably joined a person's conversation.
But these days the phones also seem to be making those clicks in Russia's State Duma lower house of parliament - where more than half a dozen of the most senior lawmakers apparently had sensitive discussions taped and then put up for sale.
"These cases have become more frequent over the past five years," observes top Moscow city prosecutor Mikhail Avdyukov.
"The problem is that the most serious penalty for a phone-tapping conviction is two to four months in jail or a minor fine," Avdyukov said.
"Most often, the culprits are young entrepreneurs who are just trying to make some money by selling a taped conversation to the press." One such entrepreneur recently walked into the offices of Zavtra - an ultra-nationalist paper famous for its anti-Semitic views - and opened up a briefcase full of tapes.
"We thought he was peddling pirated music tapes," Zavtra's editor wrote in a recent account.
Instead the tapes contained alleged conversations of lawmakers like Communist Party boss Gennady Zyuganov, the maverick Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the LDPR party, and liberals Irina Khakamada and Boris Nemtsov, among several others.
Zavtra settled on publishing the conversations of its political nemesis Nemtsov - who later confirmed that the published conversation was real and appealed to Russian prosecutors to launch an investigation. His conversation revolved around an alleged plot by Nemtsov and close aides to President Vladimir Putin to torpedo the long-discussed union between Russia and its impoverished neighbor Belarus.
"Russian citizens, who are counting on a union between the two brotherly people, must know who is sinking the Russia-Belarus dream," wrote Zavtra in explanation to why it published Nemtsov's conversation with a Belarus lawmaker.
Nemtsov later told a newspaper in Minsk "that even though my conversation was confidential, I have repeatedly expressed similar views in public."
Some of the most famous "kompromat wars" happened in the mid-1990s when powerful Russian oligarchs slugged it out against each other in lucrative battles for the privatization of the last prized Soviet assets.
Many of those business barons also held media companies that splashed ugly allegations against their opponents at will.
The slander wars also touched former president Boris Yeltsin's 1996 re-election campaign.
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