Christian Caryl

Death on the Kremlin’s Doorstep

The killing of Boris Nemtsov heralds a new era of darkness for Russia’s already battered opposition.

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It was always hard to ignore Boris Nemtsov. You couldn’t help but notice when he came into a room. The physicist-turned-politician was smart, pugnacious, brash.

And so it was when I last saw him, in November 2010. Almost inevitably our conversation turned to the topic of the violence that permeates Russian political culture. We talked briefly about the fate of Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer and anti-corruption activist who met an ignominious death in prison in 2009. We discussed Anna Politkovskaya, the crusading journalist who was shot to death in 2006 in the entryway of her home. Nemtsov noted that dozens of other reporters had died on the job in the years preceding — and lamented that the killers rarely faced any accounting for their crimes. “The murderers understand that killing journalists is not a problem,” he told me.

“So who protects you?” I asked him. It seemed like a reasonable question. After all, he was one of the most outspoken opposition figures in an era when Russia’s democratic institutions, never especially strong at the best of times, had withered dramatically. There was already plenty of bad blood between Nemtsov and then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who in 2009 claimed that Nemtsov and other politicians of his generation had stolen “billions” during their heyday in the 1990s. (Putin also made a point of mentioning that some of their confederates were in prison.) Threats were a regular part of Nemtsov’s life.

My question made him shrug. “God, I don’t know,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t have bodyguards.”

Just a few hours ago, early in the morning of Feb. 28, Moscow time, unknown assailants gunned Nemtsov down on a sidewalk in front of the Kremlin. The killing, as veteran Russia-watcher Steve Levine notes here, had all the hallmarks of a contract hit. Speculation about the identity of his killers is already rife — and ultimately academic, since they will never be caught. In Russia they almost never are.

On Feb. 10, Nemtsov gave an interview in which he expressed the fear that Putin wanted to kill him. It wasn’t an entirely crazy thought. Aside from the offense of expressing openly oppositionist views, Nemtsov was one of the few major Russian political figures who has dared to criticize Putin’s annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine. (And, indeed, some are already speculating that those very separatists might have been behind Nemtsov’s death — although it’s hard to imagine that they would have dared such an act without explicit permission from the Kremlin.)

Nemtsov also had the extraordinary temerity to attack Putin for his lavish overspending on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi (which happens to be Nemtsov’s birthplace). None of this was calculated to boost his popularity among ordinary Russians, who tend to find Putin’s tough-guy theatrics a thrill. Nemtsov’s periodic reports highlighting corruption and human rights violations certainly didn’t endear him to the Kremlin, either. And just hours before his death he was touting a planned opposition demonstration, scheduled for the coming Sunday, that looks as though it will now turn into a huge memorial service.

It’s no stretch to say that 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.

During our last meeting, Nemtsov was characteristically unapologetic about his beliefs. He expressed deep skepticism about the “reset,” the Obama administration’s plan to find a new modus vivendi with the Kremlin based on the two country’s shared interests. “Putin has absolutely different values,” he told me. “Obama believes in freedom and the rule of law. Putin believes only in money, business, and power.” And while he welcomed American pressure on Moscow to observe the norms of human rights, he had no illusions about Washington’s ability to transform his country’s culture from afar. “I don’t think the American president or the American congress will establish democracy in our country. I think that’s our responsibility.”

He was right, of course. But that struggle, already difficult enough, will now become even harder in his absence.


 Twitter: @ccaryl

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