Within sight of the Kremlin’s security cameras, a man was shot four times in the back on Friday night. The victim – Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician who opposed Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The killers – no one knows, but we can take a guess. So who was Boris Nemtsov? And who ordered his murder?
Nemtsov was in many ways a symbol of how Russia’s opposition has been gutted. Once a contender for high office in the 90s, his rise was hit by economic crises and he ended up on the wrong side of Putin. By 2015 he had been reduced to an outsider. After trying and failing to start opposition parties in the early 2000s, he briefly became known again after being arrested during the 2011 protests. After that, he faded once more to the edges of the opposition movement. To be perfectly honest, before yesterday I had never heard of Boris Nemtsov.
The reason for this is that he was subject to what is common treatment for those who set themselves up against Vladimir Putin. Opposition leaders are harrassed and slandered as slaves to foreign masters. Numerous legal barriers are thrown up to stop them forming parties, or running for president. The parties that do get into parliament are weak and neutered. The official opposition currently consists of the Communists, the Ultranationalists and a social democratic party led by a man who said “We all want Vladimir Putin to be the next president” – not exactly star material. The real opposition is sidelined, sometimes even jailed – but not often murdered.
However, Nemtsov isn’t the only anti-Putin activist to meet a violent end. Back in 2006 journalist Anna Politovskaya, who had repeatedly criticised Russia’s war in Chechnya, was shot dead in her lift. Other figures like former spy Alexander Litvenenko or lawyer Sergei Magnitsky have died mysteriously. In the case of Politovskaya, the hitman who allegedly killed her was found. The man who gave the order was not.
This is all not to say that Vladimir Putin ordered the murder of Nemtsov. It’s a possibility, but it seems a bit unlikely. As I said above, Nemtsov wasn’t a well-known leader anymore, and his plans to organise a protest against Russia’s involvement in Ukraine didn’t pose a real threat. However the idea that he was murdered as a “provocation”, is ridiculous. Russian media has given this theory plenty of airing, while avoiding mentioning his criticisms of Putin. Some even suggesting that he was killed by Islamic extremists or the CIA. These are conspiracy theories, and they’re not worth spending time on.
Even if Putin didn’t order the hit, he is in a way ultimately responsible. It seems most likely to me that Nemtsov was killed by lone-wolves in the security services, a supporter of the Donbass separatists or Russian nationalists – a supporter of Putin who thought they were doing the right thing by taking out a ‘Western, pro-Ukraine stooge’. As expert Mark Galeotti says, Putin has created an “increasingly toxic political climate“, where his enemies are the enemies of the state and of the Russian people. No one is allowed to voice simple opposition to Russia’s course. This is an absolute disaster for Russia itself. As potential alternatives to Putin slip away, he becomes more and more assured that he is Russia’s only option. This is not a trend that can lead anywhere good – for his country, and the world.