Did Boris Nemtsov, the bogeyman of Russia’s rising nationalism, push his luck by provoking Putin repeatedly?
Here’s a question for you to chew on: Why would Russian President Vladimir Putin, who enjoys a popularity rating of around 80 percent at the moment, want to get rid of a fading opposition politician, Boris Nemtsov, who hardly registers on the public radar?
And what would be the logic of having him assassinated less than half a mile away from the Kremlin walls? Wouldn’t it be asking for trouble, considering that Russia’s relations with the West are at their lowest point since the Cold War over the crisis in Ukraine?
Nevertheless, once the news of the fatal shooting of 55-year-old Nemtsov, late last Friday, came out of Moscow, all the usual suspects started pointing out that he was a “fierce critic” of Putin, implying that the Kremlin must have had something to do with it. Some were cunning enough to say that even if Putin did not order Nemtsov’s murder, he had created “an atmosphere of hate and intolerance” in the country that indirectly resulted in the assassination of the “prominent opposition leader”.
Nemtsov was gunned down on the Moskvoretsky Bridge, as he was walking with his companion, a model from Ukraine, Anna Duratskih, from an eatery in the GUM shopping centre across from the Kremlin.
As it has now been established, a man came out from the stairs leading to the embankment from the bridge, shot at Nemtsov six times from a Makarov pistol, hitting him four times in the back, and then jumped into a car which pulled up at the curb. Nemtsov, according to the witness who saw the whole thing, died practically instantly.
The Kremlin reacted quickly to the incident; 40 minutes later, its official spokesman said that Putin had been informed about the incident and ordered law enforcement agencies to create a special task force to investigate Nemtsov’s murder. The line from the Kremlin was that it treated the incident as a “contract hit” and that it was intended as a provocation. It was later announced that Putin had sent his condolences to Nemtsov’s mother and even promised her that everything would be done to find her son’s killers.
Western leaders were also quick to respond to the killing, with US President Barack Obama leading the condemnation of Nemtsov’s murder and calling for an investigation. This was odd in itself because the investigation had already started and the Russian media was giving blanket coverage to the story. Even more puzzling was the way stern-faced western ambassadors rushed the next day to lay flowers at the place Nemtsov was shot. This was not very tactful, since Nemtsov had regularly called for Putin’s overthrow, and their paying homage implied that these western diplomats in Moscow supported that notion.
Investigators in Moscow are currently looking at several lines of inquiry, including a possible link to the Ukraine crisis and nationalistic elements there that could have organised the murder to “destabilise the situation in Russia”. Other possibilities on the table include the so-called “Islamic extremist connection”, a possible link to Nemtsov’s strong stand on Charlie Hebdo and his criticism of Muslim extremism generally, his business interests and even a possible “jealous lover” version, involving a spurned boyfriend of Nemtsov’s Ukrainian companion that night.
The problem with the coverage of Nemtsov's murder abroad is that very few people outside the tight circle of so-called 'Russian experts' know much about the man and his political career.
There are also inquiries into his conflicts as a member of parliament, from the Yaroslavl region, with the local authorities and businessmen. But as my sources in Moscow tell me, the Ukrainian link is given top priority at the moment.
Stir up trouble
Sunday’s march in memory of Nemtsov passed quietly, despite fears that some people might be tempted to stir up trouble and provoke clashes with the police, with around 21,000 people taking part and not “tens of thousands” as reported by some media outlets. (The reason why official estimates are closer to the real numbers is because all demonstrators had to pass through metal detectors before joining the march and were registered by computers.)
And if you consider that some people came to express their specific grievances that had nothing to do with Nemtsov, like economic problems or even demanding to free the Ukrainian pilot Nadezha Savchenko, who is in prison in Russia on charges of accessory to murder of Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine, it is clear that the march was not solely centred on the dead politician.
The problem with the coverage of Nemtsov’s murder abroad is that very few people outside the tight circle of so-called “Russian experts” know much about the man and his political career. But it is worthwhile remembering that his achievements were not so numerous and his so-called attempts to “root out corruption” rarely brought any results, if any at all.
Nemtsov’s six-year governorship of the Nizhniy Novgorod region, from 1991 to 1997, did not produce anything spectacular and his presence in the Russian cabinet as deputy prime minister and later first deputy prime minister in 1997 and 1998 were not exactly outstanding, culminating in the government collapsing in August 1998 when Russia had defaulted on its domestic debts.
No substantial following
Nemtsov’s career as an opposition politician was not without achievements but he never managed to build a substantial following and all his attempts to return to frontline politics failed. Since 2012, he was the cofounder and co-chairman of the Republican Party of Russia – People’s Freedom Party, which had no representation in the State Duma, the Russian parliament.
I interviewed Nemtsov in London in 2005 for a Russian newspaper when he attended the Russian Economic Forum and we had had a long conversation about his plans for the future and the overall political situation in Russia.
My impression was that he did not have a coherent political programme that he could offer to Russian voters. By then, he was already a marginal politician, bitter at the world for not recognising his talents but basking in the adoration of the fairer sex.
He remained part of the liberal Moscow opposition and I got an impression that by then he reconciled himself with the fact that his role was that of a “charismatic troublemaker” who said things to shock rather than suggesting anything practical.
He was eloquent but without much substance, ambitious but without the intellect to back it. I even had a feeling then that if Putin would have offered him a job in his government, he might have agreed to be in the spotlight again. For he liked the trappings of power, which was obvious during his days as regional governor and deputy prime minister in the 1990s.
Nevertheless, any murder is always a heinous crime. But it is also deeply unfair to use the memory of the dead for political purposes. The hope is that the killers of Boris Nemtsov will be found and brought to justice.
Alexander Nekrassov is a former Kremlin and government adviser.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.