Boris Nemtsov: murder in an atmosphere of hate


The death of Boris Nemtsov, in the shadow of the Kremlin, is rooted in the atmosphere of hate which has been building in Russia for the past year. And Nemtsov was quite unlike the man often portrayed.

Alexandr Litoy
2 March 2015

Boris Nemtsov, 55-year-old co-chair of the People’s Freedom Party (PNR-PARNAS), was strolling in the centre of Moscow with his girllfriend, Anna Duritskaya, a Ukrainian model, when a car braked in front of the pair as they crossed a bridge over the Moskva River. Six shots were fired at Nemtsov. The politician died at the scene. The car sped away. According to information released by Russia’s Investigative Committee, the country’s main federal investigating authority, Nemtsova and Duritskaya were making their way to Nemtsov’s flat. The car’s licence plate is known to the police, but the car’s whereabouts are yet to be confirmed.

The murder was committed on Friday evening, ahead of a planned anti-crisis march on Sunday – the first such march to be permitted by the city authorities since last autumn. The march’s organisers had published their demands beforehand: reduce state expenditure on military and policing in favour of healthcare and education, end Russia’s involvement in the war in Donbas, and curtail the country’s isolation from the rest of the world.

Frenzied propaganda

Russian state television has been pushing frenzied propaganda for more than a year. Its targets: America, Ukraine and the Russian opposition. In March 2014, Vladimir Putin described leading opposition figures as ‘national traitors.’ And as the economic crisis set in, hysteria has only continued to grow.

As the economic crisis set in, hysteria has only continued to grow.

In recent months, the most virulent pro-Putin groups have united in forming the AntiMaidan movement, which has declared its support – to the point of violence – for the government. The scale of AntiMaidan’s public hate for its opponents would suggest a conflict on the cusp of civil war. AntiMaidan participants have been involved in several attacks on opposition demonstrations. Nothing good was ever going to come from the fanatical supporters of the regime, but the shooting of Boris Nemtsov was unexpected, nevertheless.

Leonid Gozman, a former leader of the Union of Right Forces party, however, thinks there is something else. ‘The authorities found Nemtsov annoying. He went for the holiest of holies – property. His numerous reports – on the Sochi Olympics, on Putin’s palaces – hit them where it hurt. But I’m not saying that they’re behind the murder,’ muses Gozman, who used to lead the opposition party together with Nemtsov.

Indeed, the scenario that Nemtsov ‘was killed on the orders of Putin’ seems unlikely. A new terrorist group acting independently – for example, one formed by veterans of the conflict in ‘Novorossiya’ – appears far more credible. The target of Nemtsov makes sense for this kind of attack. Since the late 1990s, Nemtsov has been the focus of placards, caricatures, and threatening anti-liberal newspaper articles by pro-Kremlin activists. These groups frequently caricatured Nemtsov as an ‘agent of America.’

In a press release on Saturday, the Investigative Committee confirmed the possibility of such a scenario: ‘A chain of events connected to the situation in Ukraine is under investigation. It is no secret that, on both sides of the conflict, there are radical individuals beyond the control of any authorities.’

The scenario that Nemtsov ‘was killed on the orders of Putin’ seems unlikely.

The Investigative Committee is also considering the possibility that Nemtsov was killed by radical Islamists – the politician made a public expression of sympathy for the journalists at Charlie Hebdo after the mass shooting in January. Although, it should be said, the Committee is also looking into the involvement of ‘external forces’, attempting to de-stabilise the situation in Russia. Pro-Kremlin activists have already discussed this scenario more openly: ‘Nemtsov was killed by his American controllers – a dead Nemtsov is more useful when it comes to manipulating the situation in the country.’

Political biography

Nemtsov came to politics in 1990. Previously a physicist, with more than 60 articles and several inventions to his name, Nemtsov had a potential scientific career before him.

‘At the 1990 elections, Nemtsov was supported by the Democratic Russia movement, which I helped create,’ remembers rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, a former aide to Andrei Sakharov, and who remains involved in opposition politics today. ‘He became known in Nizhny Novgorod after collecting signatures against the construction of a nuclear power station. He became a deputy [in the Supreme Soviet] as a result.’

Nevertheless, Ponomaryov is confident that Nemtsov would have become a politician, nuclear plant or no nuclear plant – by virtue of his temperament.

During the 1990s, Nemtsov was a deputy in the Russian parliament, a governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region, and first deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin.

‘Nemtsov was a far more serious, systematic and thoughtful person than he portrayed himself,’ says Leonid Gozman, who worked with Nemtsov both in (since disbanded) Union of Right Forces and in government.

‘He prepared for all meetings very seriously – no half-measures when it came to solving problems. Though he behaved very differently: ‘Guys, I’ve been scratching my head – here’s a thought.’ But beyond that easy patter, he was thinking things through seriously.’

‘There was a time when Boris Yeltsin said in public that he wanted Nemtsov to take over after he left office. But that was in the first half of the 1990s. By the end of the decade, when Yeltsin wasn’t even really in charge anymore, the FSB managed to put Vladimir Putin in place,’ remarks Ponomaryov.

There was a time when Boris Yeltsin said in public that he wanted Nemtsov to take over after he left office.

Ponomaryov, a seasoned rights activist, tells me that the Union of Right Forces, a right-of-centre liberal party, which Nemtsov led in the 1990s and at the beginning of the 2000s, supported Putin as a presidential candidate – even though Nemtsov and several other influential members voted against this policy in an internal party meeting. From 2003 onwards, Nemtsov’s political activities were almost solely directed towards criticising Putin. Ponomaryov goes as far as to posit that Nemtsov felt a kind of ‘responsibility’ for Putin’s rise to power. The Union of Right Forces fell into increasing obscurity over the next few years, eventually losing all representation in the Duma in the 2003 elections. Nemtsov resigned from the party, which disbanded in 2008 after its new leader, Nikita Belykh, took up President Dimtry Medvedev’s offer to become governor of the Kirov Region.

Before 2003, Nemtsov was a deputy in the Duma. He then started in business after losing his seat, moving into street protests in opposition to the Russian authorities. Nemtsov financed many opposition events from his business earnings; and could be seen handing out leaflets on the streets. Arrested on many occasions, Nemtsov spent several periods on short sentences in jail.

‘I once complimented him,’ remembers political scientist and commentator Andrei Piontkovsky, who was a member of the anti-Putin political movement ‘Solidarity’ (formed in 2008) together with Nemtsov. The movement had been formed as a ‘big-tent’ protest group combining critics of United Russia from both the left and right. ‘I said: “I know all the leaders of the Russian opposition. You are the only one who one can disagree with, say something unpleasant to, but which won’t ruin your personal relationship.” This really was true. And he answered: “I don’t have any illusions about myself.”

‘For Nemtsov, political life was a second life – one where he was already successful. If he hadn’t gotten involved in politics, he could’ve continued a promising scientific career.’

His own man

While Alexei Navalny’s Progress Party is attempting to register, under resistance from the authorities, Nemtsov’s  PNR-PARNAS remains independent and liberal. Other opposition parties, such as liberal party Yabloko (founded in 1995) and Civic Platform, the party of Mikhail Prokhorov, a wealthy businessman, show themselves to be increasingly reticent when it comes to criticising the Kremlin.

Just a few years ago, PNR-PARNAS’s party registration was an important fact for the Russian opposition. For instance, thanks to the existence of PNR-PARNAS, Nemtsov became a deputy in the Yaroslavl’ regional parliament; and anti-corruption activist and opposition figure Alexei Navalny ran in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election.

But following fresh restrictions on party registration, as well as changes to the electoral procedures for city council elections, PNR-PARNAS, as a recently registered party, can participate in only a limited number of elections.

In spite of all this, Nemtsov was always at the core of Russia’s opposition; and he always would have been. 

Standfirst image: Boris Nemtsov by Ilya Schurov via Wikipedia. All rights reserved.

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