He understood how Vladimir Putin’s regime worked and still was brave enough to oppose it. He was an outspoken critic of the Kremlin, and never hesitated to make sharp statements against the direction Russia was going. He publicly denounced Russia’s war in Ukraine, and went to the European Parliament to call for the imposition of ‘Magnitsky sanctions’ against regime officials. A former Deputy Prime Minister, who Boris Yeltsin almost named as his successor, a man committed to liberal values, freedom of expression and human rights, Boris Nemtsov has paid the ultimate price for his bravery.
Nemtsov’s murder is the highest profile killing during Putin’s fifteen years of rule. That the leading voice of opposition could be gunned down in public, two hundred metres from the Kremlin, under CCTV cameras that happened not to be working, can hardly be perceived as a coincidence. Like all opposition leaders, Nemtsov was under constant surveillance by the Russian security services. It is hard not to conclude that no matter who pulled the trigger, they were allowed to do so.
During Putin’s rule, several symbolic figures have been sacrificed to intimidate other potential dissidents. In 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the outspoken owner of the Yukos oil company and the bank Menatep, was arrested and jailed for ten years. His imprisonment brought the oligarchic class to heel and consolidated Putin’s ‘vertical’ of power. In 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent reporter of the Russian Army’s abuses in Chechnya, was shot dead, apparently as a warning to other journalists.
One month later, Alexander Litvinenko’s death proved that no one is beyond the reach of the regime. The former FSB officer, who became an outspoken critic of Putin, was poisoned by radioactive polonium in London. In 2009, Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who accused Russian officials of large-scale theft and tax fraud, died in prison after being denied medical care. Thus the most vocal critics of the Kremlin have often ended up silenced.
Semi-official theories about Nemtsov’s murder have pinned the blame on everyone from Islamist militants, to Ukrainians, to CIA agents, to liberal provocateurs, to Nemtsov’s lover, the 23-year old Ukrainian model Anna Duritskaya. Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dimitry Peskov, implied that the state had no reason to want Nemtsov dead when he commented that “Boris Nemtsov was only slightly more than an average citizen”.
It is true that Nemtsov was not immensely popular as a politician. His role in Yeltsin’s governments in the 1990s led many Russians to regard him unfavourably. He lost his seat in the Duma in 2003, and came a distant second in the Sochi mayoral elections in 2009. He certainly did not have the profile of the anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, released from jail last Friday after serving a fifteen-day sentence for distributing leaflets.
However, with the rouble crisis, a shrinking economy, oil prices down 50% and rising unemployment, a leader like Nemtsov could have become a real threat for Putin’s regime. He had been a longstanding irritant for the Kremlin, producing reports for several years detailing government corruption and incompetence, but it was the Ukrainian crisis that returned him to national prominence.
A supporter of the Orange Revolution in 2004 and a former adviser to president Viktor Yushchenko, Nemtsov had been among the first to criticise Putin’s annexation of the Crimea. Last year he produced two films which highlighted Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine and suggested Russian rebels may have been responsible for downing Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.
At the time of his death, he was preparing to publish a report based on interviews with relatives of Russian soldiers who had been killed fighting in Ukraine, which would have further undermined Putin’s assertions that no army units were on Ukrainian soil. Not for nothing did Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko describe him as “the bridge between Ukraine and Russia”.
Just weeks ago, Nemtsov said in an interview: “I am afraid Putin will kill me”. Even though he knew he was in danger, he continued to condemn the Russian president’s aggressive domestic and foreign policies, and the principle of ‘managed democracy’ by which the state exercises control over television channels and the press. It is Putin’s media that is behind the intolerant and paranoid public mood in Russia today, which portrays opposition leaders as evil forces, foreign agents and traitors. The responsibility for the atmosphere of murderous hatred in which Boris Nemtsov was killed lies squarely with Vladimir Putin.
Five men are now in police custody, suspected of Nemtsov’s murder. But this will not bring about an end to speculation over who pulled the trigger, and who gave the order. Few of his supporters expect the full truth to come to light. With Boris Nemtsov died another piece of hope that Russia might become a liberal country without totalitarian features, a democratic country without adjectives, and a place where individuals will be able to express their thoughts without being afraid that they will be the next victims of the regime.
Natia Seskuria is completing her Master’s degree in Politics, Security and Integration at SSEES. Her thesis focuses on the Russian-Georgian War of 2008. Follow her on Twitter @natia_seskuria.