Christian Caryl writes: It’s no stretch to say that [Boris] Nemtsov’s career exemplified both the promise and the weaknesses of Russia’s liberal opposition movement. In the early 1990s, the young Nemtsov – then a governor of the region around Nizhny Novgorod — made a name for himself as an ardent supporter of President Boris Yeltsin’s reform course. In 1997, a year after Yeltsin’s re-election to a second term as president, Nemtsov joined his cabinet, part of a “dream team” of young reformers who were celebrated by western politicians and investors for their liberal economic policies and their embrace of democratic values. Nemtsov’s energy and charisma made him a particular hit with voters, and there was a time when he was even touted as the great hope of the reformist camp, perhaps even as a possible successor to the increasingly erratic Yeltsin.
Yet these were also the very years when the dream of a new Russia based on free markets and liberal values foundered fatally. Most Russians remember the 1990s as a decade of shocking industrial decline, salaries left unpaid for months or years, and savings lost to hyperinflation. Organized crime ran amok, and life expectancy plummeted. The newly minted “oligarchs,” the small circle of well-connected businessmen who benefited disproportionately from the privatization of the nation’s prime assets, paraded their wealth and influence.
The liberal politicians favored by Yeltsin either abetted these developments or proved powerless to stop them. Their dream ended with a bang on Aug. 17, 1998, when the government, headed by baby-faced Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko, devalued the ruble and defaulted on its debts. Nemtsov was Kirienko’s deputy prime minister, and it was a moment he would never quite live down. Amid the chaos, the general yearning for a “strong leader” became almost palpable. The Russian financial crisis marked the real start of Putin’s path to the presidency.
The liberals’ subsequent exile from power wasn’t made much easier by their own fractiousness and all-too-frequent contempt for political realities. Nemtsov himself played a starring role in one of the most notorious examples of opposition obliviousness. A 2003 campaign ad for his political party depicted Nemtsov and his two colleagues, Anatoly Chubais and Irina Khakamada, flying over Russia in a cushy private plane as they discussed their plans for the country’s future. Few images could have better summed up the popular image of the liberal opposition as arrogantly detached from the gritty realities of everyday life.
In a truly democratic society, of course, politicians have the chance to learn from their mistakes, giving them the hope of returning, revived, to the give-and-take of honest competition. Russia’s Putin-era opposition has never had this luxury. Its adherents have been thrown into jail, hounded into silence, driven into exile. Yet even these crimes pale against the killing of Nemtsov, whose death presages a grim new era of darkness in the country’s political life. [Continue reading…]