Does Boris Nemtsov’s assassination represent the turning point for Russian politics?

Julia Ioffe writes: On Friday evening, Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition leader and former first deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, went on a prominent Moscow radio station to exhort his fellow citizens to come out to protest President Vladimir Putin’s policies. There would be a rally on Sunday, a spring march, to demonstrate against the deepening economic crisis and Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. The most prominent Russian opposition leader, Aleksei Navalny, had been put in jail for 15 days, which just happened to be long enough to keep him from attending the rally. Nemtsov, who was older and, by now, less influential, had handed out leaflets in the metro and encouraged people to come anyway.

After the radio show, on which Nemtsov warned that too much power in the hands of one man would “end in catastrophe,” he met Anna Duritskaya, his girlfriend of three years — and, as the police would later pointedly note, a citizen of Ukraine. They had dinner and then headed home, strolling across Red Square and past the swirling domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral, adjacent to the Kremlin. Just before midnight, as they crossed the bridge toward the historic Moscow neighborhood where Nemtsov lived, a white car pulled up, and, according to investigators, someone inside fired seven or eight shots. Four of them hit Nemtsov in the head, heart, liver and stomach, killing him on the spot.

Duritskaya was unharmed and immediately taken in for questioning. Nemtsov, a big, broad man, was left on the pavement in the rain, his shirt yanked up to his chin.

On Russian social media, liberal Moscow has struggled to wrap its head around something that seemed like it simply couldn’t happen, until it did. It had been years since Nemtsov, a rising star in Yeltsin-era politics, had been the standard-bearer of Western liberalism, and he could be a silly bon vivant. But he was deeply intelligent, witty, kind and ubiquitous. He seemed to genuinely be everyone’s friend; when I lived in Moscow as a journalist, he was always willing to jaw over endless glasses of cognac. And he was a powerful, vigorous critic of Vladimir Putin, assailing him in every possible medium, constantly publishing reports on topics like the president’s lavish lifestyle and the corruption behind the Sochi Olympics.

How could such a prominent politician — a founder of the opposition Solidarity Party, a sitting member of the Yaroslavl city parliament — be gunned down so brazenly, within steps of the Kremlin? “We didn’t kill members of government,” Gleb Pavlovsky, an independent political consultant who used to work for Putin, told me over the phone. “It’s an absolutely new situation.” Olga Romanova, a prominent opposition activist and a close friend of Nemtsov, said, “There are more cameras in that spot than there are grains in a packet of grain.” When I called her last night, she had just come from the scene of the crime, where her friend still lay on the ground, surrounded by laughing policemen. “It’s the first time I’ve seen a very close person murdered, lying on the pavement,” she said. “It’s terrifying.”

Putin promptly called Nemtsov’s mother to offer his condolences and threw what seemed like the entire Ministry of Internal Affairs on the case. Yet we can be sure that the investigation will lead precisely nowhere. At most, some sad sap, the supposed trigger-puller, will be hauled in front of a judge, the scapegoat for someone far more powerful. More likely, the case will founder for years amid promises that everyone is working hard, and no one will be brought to justice at all. This has been the pattern for other high-profile killings, like those of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky. [Continue reading…]

The Economist notes: Given the level of security in the vicinity of the Kremlin, it is hard to imagine why Mr Nemtsov’s killers would have picked that spot for the shooting, unless they had reason to believe they would be able to escape. The assassins did not try to cover their traces; they did not shoot the woman who was walking with Mr Nemtsov. It is by far the most significant political assassination in recent Russian history. Many have drawn parallels between this crime and the fates of other recent victims, such as Galina Starovoitova, a democratic reformer killed in 1998. Yet the atmosphere in Russia is increasingly reminiscent of darker days from a more distant European past.

It is an atmosphere Mr Nemtsov himself described 10 months ago, when nationalist euphoria was building on the back of the annexation of Crimea and an escalating war in Ukraine. “I can’t remember such a level of general hatred as the one in Moscow today,” Mr Nemtsov wrote on his Facebook page

Not in 1991, during the August coup, not even in 1993 [during Yeltsin’s stand off with parliament]. Aggression and cruelty are stoked by the television while the key definitions are coming from the slightly possessed Kremlin master. “National traitors”, “fifth column”, “fascist junta”—all these terms are coming from the same Kremlin office…The Kremlin is cultivating and rewarding the lowest instincts in people, provoking hatred and fighting. People are set off against each other. This hell can not end peacefully.

In the past year, the atmosphere of aggression and intolerance has only become stronger.

Ilya Ponomarev, a Russian left wing politician and member of the Russian parliament, says: I think this is indeed a turning point for Russian politics. Some would say just another turning point but I think this is the turning point.

I think that, for the future of Russia, the murder of Boris Nemtsov will mean the similar thing as the murder of Sergei Kirov in 1934 [the a prominent Bolshevik leader in the Soviet Union who was shot dead in his own office. — Editor’s note]. That murder was a trigger for the great terror of 1937.

The audience of this crime is not the Russian people. For the overwhelming majority of Russians, Boris was a very honest and straightforward guy, but he was a personification of the 1990s and the ill-manifested reforms of Boris Yeltsin. All the hatred against Yeltsin was personified in Nemtsov.

I think that the target audience for this murder is within the elites. It’s within the Russian elites who knew Nemtsov very well… and within the elites in the West — which probably is even a greater target.

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