What Boris Nemtsov’s murder tell us about Putin’s Russia

REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
Boris Nemtsov shown attending a rally in central Moscow in 2013.

Who killed Boris Nemtsov? More to the point, why? And what does it tell us about Vladimir Putin’s Russia?

It must come as great comfort to the dispirited Russian opposition that Putin’s security services have begun rounding up the usual suspects. Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, was once considered a possible successor to Boris Yeltsin as Russia’s president – a job Putin ultimately got. His life ended with four shots in the back, fired Feb. 27 as he walked with a Ukrainian girlfriend near Red Square and the Kremlin.

The killing was a reminder of political assassinations and contract killings that rocked Russia in years past, most notably the shooting of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006.  If that case turns out to be a model, Russia is facing a long, unsatisfying legal process in which prosecutors identify the killers (whether you believe them is another matter entirely), but do little to explain why.

There is already a vast range of explanations being offered by government officials, opposition figures and analysts as to why Nemtsov was slain. But they don’t know, and those who do know don’t talk. There is a lot more politics in this than criminal justice.

Five men appeared in court Sunday, all of whom have ties to the Caucasus region. Officials say a sixth blew himself up to avoid capture. That’s handy for a couple of reasons. The North Caucasus is a violent place, and some horrific acts of terrorism have been hatched there – particularly by Chechens or people tied to Chechnya. So it’s a relatively short leap of logic to conclude that Chechens had a hand in this, too, either as masterminds or hired guns. However, as this analysis points out, Russia officials in the past also have rushed to blame Chechens for things they didn’t do. 

It gets better. Since Chechens are Muslims, and some have gone off to join extremist groups outside Russia, one might wonder –as some officials already have suggested – whether the killing of Nemtsov was payback for his sharp criticism of the attack in January on the Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

If those explanations don’t work for you, Russian officials also have dusted off a version of the tired conspiracy mongering that almost always pops up in a case like this: The opposition had one of its own killed in order to make Putin look bad. Putin himself suggested three years ago that something like this could happen. Seriously.

As dubious as this all looks, the immediate declarations by Nemtsov’s comrades in the Russian opposition that Putin must have know or directly ordered the killing appear almost equally glib. 

While Nemtsov was an outspoken critic of Putin and one of the better-known opposition figures, it’s not as if the movement was about to coalesce around him and challenge the president. Nemtsov had plenty of baggage. In the chaotic 1990s, he emerged as one of the young, smooth, English-speaking darlings of the reforms Americans and Western Europeans loved so much – and Russians grew to hate. It was widely reported that Yeltsin was grooming Nemtsov. He gave his young protégé a central role in running the economy just in time for it to tank in 1998.

Eventually, Yeltsin chose Putin. Soon there was no room for Nemtsov – or anyone else.

That doesn’t mean he didn’t try. Nemtsov investigated corruption in the staging of the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi a year ago, and more recently looked into Russian involvement in the Ukraine conflict.  At the time of his death, he was helping organize a protest against it – which turned into a memorial protesting his assassination.

But politically, he posed no threat to Putin, who maintains a very high approval rating and publicly condemned the hit. As a former KGB officer, Putin may be well versed in this kind of skullduggery. The question is, why would he bother?

There are, of course, several theories, including creating a pretext for a security crackdown that would help ensure no one will be able to launch a Ukraine-style revolution in Russia. Time will tell. 

Perhaps more logical are the explanations that focus on the warped system Putin has created.  Note the passion in this piece by 88-year-old historian Georgy Mirsky. Such analyses suggest there are many dangerous Putin loyalists who feel they can act with impunity and have their own reasons for wanting Nemtsov dead – perhaps because of his opposition to the Ukraine conflict or his anti-corruption drive. 

One of the things Russians like about Putin is that he brought an end to the  “Wild West” days when shakedowns and street killings were daily fare. Instead, some of the criminality has gone in house. Even if you’re inclined to accept that Putin wasn’t personally involved in Nemtsov’s death, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that someone, somewhere in the governing structure was – and that means some aspects of Russia’s government are themselves little more than a criminal enterprise.

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