The assassination of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov is a stunning development even to the most jaded observers of that country’s politics. While it is not known who pulled the trigger or why, the murder of a leading politician within sight of the Kremlin walls is a chilling and gruesome warning to all who would challenge the government of President Vladimir Putin.
Nemtsov was assassinated late on Feb. 27 as he walked with his girlfriend near the Kremlin. The killing was a brazen act: He was shot as he strolled meters from the heart of the Russian government, on a street that is under surveillance by video cameras — 18 by one count.
A former regional governor and member of the Upper House of Parliament, Nemtsov served as deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, Putin’s predecessor. Since then, he had emerged as a leader of the democratic opposition in Russia and was one of the most vocal and visible critics of Putin. He produced a report on the corruption surrounding the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and was reportedly preparing a dossier on Russian involvement in the fighting in Ukraine.
Just hours before he was killed, Nemtsov had an interview in which he denounced the president’s “mad and aggressive policy” in Ukraine.
Those comments prompted one of the first theories behind the killing — that the culprits were “radical personalities” who would not want the exposure that would follow Nemtsov’s report on Ukraine. Another Ukrainian angle was served up by those who asserted the killing was somehow connected to Nemtsov’s girlfriend, a Ukrainian model.
Since Nemtsov was, as one observer darkly noted, “not a faithful man,” the “only plausible motive for the murder is jealousy,” opined another Putin supporter.
A third theory — offered by Russian investigators of the crime — speculates that the murder was the work of Islamic extremists who were angered by Nemtsov’s condemnation of the killing in January by Islamic extremists of journalists who worked for the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
A fourth explanation posits a power struggle among opposition forces in Russia as individuals jockey for power. This theory discounts the fact that the opposition leaders had good relations among each other and were more focused on fighting Putin. A variant on this theme is that Nemtsov was worth more dead than alive and was, therefore, killed to create a martyr and a rallying point for a divided opposition.
One commentary in Pravda noted that Nemtsov was being referred to as the “Sacred sacrifice.”
A fifth theory suggests that the assassination was the work of Western intelligence services or agents who seek to discredit the Moscow government. Communist Party Leader Gennady Zyuganov explained that “it must be borne in mind that enemies of our country, all sorts of scoundrels, will use it to destabilize the situation in Russia.” Putin himself called the killing “a pure provocation,” language that alarms opposition leaders who fear a crackdown will be forthcoming.
There is a final and simpler explanation: Nemtsov was killed because he was an irritant to the Russian government and those stung by his criticism felt no compunction about silencing him. Sadly this theory makes the most sense. There is hostility to opposition that borders on contempt in Russia today, along with a sense of impunity among those in power.
Circumstances surrounding the killing lend credence to the theory of official involvement. Conveniently, for example, nearby video cameras that should have been filming the scene were reportedly not in service at the time of the killing.
Equally convenient was the appearance of a large snow-blower truck on the street that obscured the line of sight of the one long-distance camera that did film the murder. There was no snow on the ground.
Putin pledged that the killers will be found and justice will soon be served. His record is not encouraging. The Committee to Protect Journalists counts 23 journalists killed in Russia since Putin took power in 2000. The most famous killing was of crusader Anna Politkovskaya, who was a thorn in the side of the Kremlin for her reporting on human rights abuses during the war in Chechnya. She was murdered in her apartment building in 2006. A Moscow court convicted the perpetrators of the crime in 2014, but the reasons for the killing remain unknown, along with who ordered the hit.
Dissident lawyer Stanislav Markelov was shot on the street in broad daylight in 2009, and former intelligence agent turned Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium in London in 2006.
These attacks are the most extreme expression of a larger campaign against dissent in Russia. The opposition has been systematically silenced in Russia. Media outlets have been closed and those who have tried to remain open have been harassed. Individuals who challenge the complex of power and money that has encrusted the Moscow government often find themselves investigated, arrested and jailed.
Not surprisingly the opposition in Russia is, as Nemtsov said in an interview the day before he was killed, at the “absolute low point.”