BERLIN – For years, Moscow insiders have reacted to former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov’s philippics against President Vladimir Putin with a roll of the eyes. Everyone knew what Nemtsov was going to say. The man Boris Yeltsin almost picked as his successor had become irrelevant, marginalized.
Now Nemtsov’s criticism of Putin’s Russia has been validated in the most terrible way. On Friday, the opposition politician was killed a few hundred yards from the Kremlin, shot at least four times as he crossed a bridge over the Moskva River.
Just a few hours before his death, Nemtsov went on Ekho Mosky radio to call on Muscovites to join an opposition march Sunday. Another of the event’s organizers, anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, was pre-emptively sentenced to 15 days in jail, so he will miss the demonstration. So now will Nemtsov, who was as relentless a Putin critic as Navalny, but less popular because of his history as a successful politician in the 1990s.
I first met Nemtsov in 1992, when he was governor in Nizhny Novgorod on the Volga. A brilliant young physicist, he was trying to practice liberal economics in a gloomy Soviet-era industrial city that had long been off-limits to foreigners. I remember my feeling of incredulity as I watched him in his office: With his ready smile and fluid eloquence, he was strikingly different from the Soviet functionaries who preceded him. He was like a Hollywood movie politician transplanted into the Russian hinterland.
He was popular — his reforms made the region a top draw for foreign investment — and Yeltsin took notice. In 1997, he made Nemtsov deputy prime minister responsible for utilities reform and anti-monopoly regulation. Yeltsin was grooming him for the top job, though the enthusiasm waned and in 1999 Yeltsin chose Putin to succeed him instead.
In a 2003 interview with the Moscow News after he had left office, Yeltsin recalled: “As I studied Nemtsov, I realized he was not ready to be president.” Yeltsin, the consummate populist, paradoxically became irritated with Nemtsov’s impromptu crowd-pleasing moves, such as an attempt to force bureaucrats to use Russian-made cars. Still, Russia’s first post-Soviet leader retained a high opinion of his former protege. “I still believe in Boris Yefimovich and have hopes for him,” Yeltsin said in that interview, using Nemtsov’s patronymic.
Nemtsov initially backed Putin. He and the political scientist Ian Bremmer wrote in the New York Times in 2000: “Russia could do considerably worse than have a leader with an unwavering commitment to the national interest. And it is difficult to see how to do better.” (“We were wrong,” Bremmer tweeted tonight. “R.I.P., Boris.”)
Putin rolled back the reckless freedom of the 1990s and Nemtsov soon grew disenchanted. He became a consistent critic of the corrupt machine Yeltsin’s successor was building. Putin responded with contempt, accusing Nemtsov of hankering after “money and power” after “stealing quite a few billions” in the 1990s. “They’ve been dragged away from the feeding trough,” Putin said of Nemtsov and his liberal allies, “so they’ve grown poor and they want to come back to line their pockets again.” The 1990s, with their painful reforms and $10-a-barrel oil, are not a popular time in today’s Russia; Putin doubtless knew he could always damn Nemtsov by association.
Now, Putin, through his press secretary Dmitri Peskov, calls Nemtsov’s death “a provocation.” But who was the provoker? In recent months, Putin’s propaganda machine has been vigorously inciting Russians against the “fifth column” — those who protested against the annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin-instigated war in eastern Ukraine. Nemtsov was on every list of traitors published on the Internet and aired on state TV. It did not help that he was Jewish. There was a strong undercurrent of anti-Semitism in the smear campaign.
Nemtsov knew he was in danger. In a recent interview, he said half in jest that his mother was worried he could get killed. “If I were really afraid, I wouldn’t have headed up an opposition party,” he said. “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”
I seriously doubt that Nemtsov’s death will invigorate the anti-Putin protest movement. It is too weak to present a threat. Convincing others of the regime’s criminality is a weapon that’s too heavy for Russian liberals to heft these days. Still, I cannot help but wonder now what my country would have been like had Yeltsin made a different choice back in 1999.
Under President Boris Nemtsov, Russia could have been a country where I could have kept living and working. With his death, that unrealized future has died, too.
Based in Berlin, writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor.