On the evening of Friday, February 27th, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was murdered on a bridge in Moscow just minutes away from the Kremlin. Nemtsov, a vocal opponent of the Putin regime, had planned to lead a rally protesting Russian military involvement in Ukraine on March 1st and intended to publish a pamphlet entitled “Putin and the War,” detailing corruption and transgressions in the ongoing conflict. The immediate aftermath of the assassination brought domestic and international scrutiny to the already troubled region and sharply divided Russian society. While the Kremlin and its supporters have characterized the assassination as a “provocation” meant to destabilize Russian society, opposition leaders have suggested that the Kremlin was involved in Nemtsov’s death. Although two suspects were charged and three others are in custody, it will likely be months before any answers can be reached as to why Nemtsov—a marginally significant politician—was murdered.
In an editorial for The Moscow Times, commentator Gleb Kuznetsov argued that the assassination of Boris Nemtsov is not a rare or outrageous event in modern Russian politics, but rather, a ritual act. He notes “powerful military officials have been killed for voicing their own opinion. Opposition members and even government loyalists had also been murdered, along with the occasional person killed for no apparent reason. It is extremely naive to imagine that the murder of Boris Nemtsov will lead to any new or significant results.” Kuznetsov’s attitude is certainly nihilistic, but it raises questions about the motivations behind the killing. If the Kremlin was involved in Nemtsov’s death, why would it target a politician largely considered past his prime? Vladimir Putin and Nemtsov both contended to succeed Boris Yeltsin in the late nineties, but the two have not been direct rivals since then. In a posthumous profile of Nemtsov, the BBC noted that after the economic crisis in 1998 ruined his chances at the presidency, his political prominence had faded in Russia until a resurgence in 2011. Even this recent success as an opposition leader was short lived, however, and he had once again slipped to the margins.
Despite Nemtsov’s relatively minor role in Russian politics, his research on corruption within the state could have posed a major threat to Putin’s monopoly on political power. Supporters of the opposition have suggested that the fall of the ruble and the war in Ukraine will inevitably lead to more unrest and dissatisfaction with the Putin regime, and Nemtsov’s pamphlet may have aggravated the situation. Nemtsov might not have been a direct challenger to Putin’s position, but he was poised to cause some trouble for the Kremlin. The opposition leader apparently knew that he was taking a risk in researching corruption—his friend Yevgenia Albats met with Nemtsov only weeks before his death and in a quote for the New York Times, said that “he was afraid of being killed” for the work that he was doing.
Yet the notion that the Kremlin viewed Boris Nemtsov and the opposition parties as immediate threats seems unlikely. In a Levada poll released just days before the murder, Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings were reported at 86 percent, an all-time high. Another poll indicated that only about 15 percent of Russians sympathized with Nemtsov and 68 percent of respondents outright opposed many other opposition leaders. Perhaps the assassination was an attempt to stymie supposed provocation by the opposition, but it seems more likely that the Kremlin feared Nemtsov’s pamphlet could galvanize more sanctions from the West, rather than endangering Putin’s hold on the state.
If the Kremlin holds partial (or all) responsibility in the death of Boris Nemtsov, its motivation may not be rooted in efforts to silence the opposition, but in an effort to distract the country from the multitude of other problems facing Russia. The Kremlin faces intense international scrutiny as a result of its involvement in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and trade sanctions imposed as punishment would exacerbate the economic strife caused by falling oil prices. Nemtsov’s opposition rally might have drawn unwanted attention to the situation only weeks after a shaky ceasefire was agreed upon.
If it were the case that Boris Nemtsov was murdered to shift attention away from these other problems, it has undoubtedly been successful. Although the rally went forward as scheduled, media coverage characterized it as a memorial to Nemtsov rather than a protest by the opposition against the regime. The Guardian noted that at the rally, “the mood was more one of quiet dismay rather than explosive anger.” The opposition rally lost its teeth in the media coverage and was overshadowed by the death of its leader—instead of inciting action as it was meant to, the rally became reflective and funereal.
The Kremlin’s response to the murder also cast the government in a positive light, though it is certainly a dubious one at best. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, President Putin vowed to “do everything to ensure that the perpetrators of this foul and cynical crime and those who stand behind them are properly punished” in a telegram to Nemtsov’s mother. Although the Kremlin may have ties to this killing, Putin can play the role of a fair and just leader by demanding justice for his fallen critic, a move to counter the opposition’s claims of corruption within the Kremlin and to reinforce his legitimacy by casting himself as a president aiming to combat the plague of political assassination within Russian politics.
With conspiracy theories of rogue nationalist assassins, opposition leaders seeking a martyr, and a regime attempting to silence a critic swirling around, the death of Boris Nemtsov remains mysterious. Nemtsov was a minor player in Russian politics, and his death, although shocking, has not significantly altered the current agenda of the Kremlin or the opposition. Friends and supporters have raised their voices, crying foul against the state, risking being silenced as well. But for all these cries for justice, the true motives for this crime will likely remain unknown for a long time, if they are ever revealed at all.
Image credits: User Dhārmikatva, Wikimedia Commons