MOSCOW – Boris Nemtsov, a charismatic Russian opposition leader and sharp critic of President Vladimir Putin, was gunned down near the Kremlin on Saturday, just a day before a planned protest against the government.
Russia’s top investigative body said Saturday it is looking into several possible motives for the killing of Nemtsov, including an attempt to destabilize the state, Islamic extremism, the Ukraine conflict and his personal life.
A statement from the body, the Investigative Committee, did not address the possibility seen as likely by many of Nemtsov’s supporters, that he was killed for being one of Putin’s most adamant and visible critics.
The 55-year-old Nemtsov was gunned down Friday near midnight as he walked on a bridge near the Kremlin with a female companion. The killing came just a few hours after a radio interview in which he denounced Putin’s “mad, aggressive” policies and the day before he was to help lead a rally protesting Russia’s actions in the Ukraine crisis and the economic crisis at home.
After his death, organizers canceled the rally and instead called for a demonstration to mourn him on Sunday in central Moscow. The city gave quick approval for that gathering, in contrast to its usual slow and grudging permission for opposition rallies.
The Investigative Committee said it was looking into whether Nemtsov had been killed as a “sacrificial victim for those who do not shun any method for achieving their political goals,” a suggestion echoing the comments by Putin’s spokesman and other Russian politicians that the attack was a “provocation” against the state.
It also said it was considering whether there was “personal enmity” toward Nemtsov in his domestic life. State-controlled TV and Kremlin-friendly media outlets on Saturday gave considerable attention to his companion, identifying her as a Ukrainian model 30 years Nemtsov’s junior and showing photos of her in alluring poses. The Investigative Committee said the pair were headed for Nemtsov’s apartment.
The statement also said it was investigating whether the killing was connected to the Ukraine conflict, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since last April, or whether there was a connection to Islamic extremism.
Nemtsov had been one of Putin’s most visible critics and his death hit other members of the opposition hard. The mourning march on Sunday could serve to galvanize the beleaguered and marginalized opposition, or it could prove to be a brief catharsis after which emotions dissipate.
Through the morning, hundreds of people came to the site of Nemtsov’s death to lay flowers.
The death of Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, ignited fury among opposition figures, who assailed the Kremlin for creating an atmosphere of intolerance of dissent and called the killing an assassination.
Putin quickly offered his condolences and called the murder a provocation.
Nemtsov was working on a report presenting evidence that he believed proved Russia’s direct involvement in the separatist rebellion that has raged in eastern Ukraine since last April. Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of backing the rebels with troops and sophisticated weapons. Moscow denies the accusations.
Putin ordered Russia’s top law enforcement chiefs to personally oversee the probe of Nemtsov’s killing.
“Putin noted that this cruel murder has all the makings of a contract hit and is extremely provocative,” presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in remarks that were carried by Russian news agencies.
U.S. President Barack Obama called on Russia’s government to perform a “prompt, impartial and transparent” investigation to bring the perpetrators to justice. Obama called Nemtsov a “tireless advocate” for the rights of Russian citizens.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Nemtsov had committed his life to a more democratic Russia “and to strong relationships between Russia and its neighbors and partners, including the United States.”
Nemtsov assailed the government’s inefficiency and rampant corruption and its Ukraine policy, which has strained relations between Russia and the West to a degree unseen since Cold War times.
In an interview with the Sobesednik newspaper, Nemtsov said in February that his 86-year old mother was afraid that Putin could have him killed for his opposition activities. Asked if he had such fears himself, he responded by saying, “If I were afraid, I wouldn’t have led an opposition party.”
Speaking on radio just a few hours before his death, he harshly criticized Putin for plunging Russia into the crisis by his “mad, aggressive and deadly policy of war against Ukraine.”
“The country needs a political reform,” Nemtsov said on Ekho Moskvy radio. “When power is concentrated in the hands of one person and this person rules for ever, this will lead to an absolute catastrophe — absolute.”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called Nemtsov a personal friend and a “bridge” between the two countries. He said on his Facebook page that he hopes the killers will be punished.
Nemtsov’s lawyer, Vadim Prokhorov, said he had received threats on social networks and told police about them, but authorities didn’t take any steps to protect him.
The Interior Ministry, which oversees Russia’s police force, said Nemtsov was killed by four shots in the back from a passing car as he was walking over a bridge just outside the Kremlin shortly after midnight.
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Yelena Alexeyeva told reporters that Nemtsov was walking with his Ukrainian female acquaintance when a vehicle drove up and unidentified assailants shot him dead. The woman wasn’t hurt and was being questioned by police.
Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister now also in opposition, said he was shocked. “In the 21st century, a leader of the opposition is being demonstratively shot just outside the walls of the Kremlin!” Kasyanov told reporters as Nemtsov’s body placed in a plastic bag was removed on a rainy and cold night as the Kremlin bells chimed nearby. “The country is rolling into the abyss.”
Garry Kasparov, a former chess champion who worked with Nemtsov to organize protests against Putin and now lives in the United States, said the killing shows that Putin and those who support him are lying when they say their popular support is strong. “If you have 86 percent support, why do you kill someone like Boris?” he said. “He maybe can reach 2 million people online at best. A demonstration brings out a hundred thousand people at most. So if you are so confident, why do that?”
Opposition activist Ilya Yashin, who last spoke to Nemtsov two days before the killing, said he had no doubt that Nemtsov’s murder was politically motivated.
“Boris Nemtsov was a stark opposition leader who criticized the most important state officials in our country, including President Vladimir Putin. As we have seen, such criticism in Russia is dangerous for one’s life,” Yashin said.