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CREDIT: Shutterstock

The Nemtsov Tragedy, and the Blame Game

Mar 4, 2015

In the ongoing crisis of the civil war in Ukraine, atrocities and human rights violations are tragically commonplace. To the list one may now add the killing of opposition leader Boris Yefimovich Nemtsov, gunned down in a brazen, broad-daylight attack near the Kremlin on February 27, 2015. The possible (see below) connection to the Ukraine conflict is that Nemtsov was reportedly prepared to issue some kind of report confirming the involvement of Russian troops and weaponry and was thus targeted for assassination.

I recall another such tragedy from last year, in which 42 pro-Russian Ukranians burned to death in a trade union building in Odessa, Ukraine, following a mortar attack by (again reportedly) pro-Kiev government forces. At the time, I called a friend and sage Russia/Ukraine expert, Dr. Nicolai Petro, who was then a Fulbright Scholar based in Odessa. I recall the wisdom of his response: in such a highly charged situation, he always allowed at least 72 hours to pass before offering a response or opinion as to blame.

In the 72 hours that have passed since the murder of Nemtsov, we have been regaled more by conspiracy theories than even marginally informed opinion, let alone concrete facts. One holds that Nemtsov, as one of the most outspoken European voices (he was cochair of the Russian branch of the European Liberal Democratic Alliance) in condemning the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris in January, had been in the crosshairs of extreme Islamist forces. Another offering was that of rogue elements within the Russian military or security forces, for whom Nemtsov, in his opposition to the purported Russian role in Ukraine, and even his support for Ukraine's courtship with NATO and the West, was a traitor. Yet a third theory was that a business deal had gone sour.

For the Western media, of course, the Nemtsov tragedy yielded the opportunity to point the finger of accusation at the Kremlin, and at President Vladimir Putin himself. Much was made of the report that Nemtsov had—just days before his death—expressed the fear that he would be targeted for assassination by the highest levels of officialdom in Moscow. It is at least possible that an over-zealous ally of Putin carried out the killing without the knowledge or authorization of the president himself. But, in following Nicolai Petro's counsel, and thus allowing for 72 hours of reflection, I find that my conclusion has not changed from my immediate reaction, namely: Putin would have almost nothing to gain, but instead something to lose, from Nemtsov's fate. In saying this, one must look at the history of Nemtsov in post-Soviet Russia. He was a genuine intellectual, with a Ph.D. in mathematics and physics. While still a relatively young man (55) at the time of his death, he had been a player of sorts for the past 20-plus years, including a brief stint as vice premier under President Yeltsin from 1997-8. His early rise had been meteoric, as "presidential representative" (basically governor) of his home region of Nizhny Novgorod. Here he was in the vanguard of the madcap capitalist, free-market reform under Yeltsin—"Laboratory of Reform" was Nemtsov's own preferred title. In the beginning, the yields in the form of rocketing economic growth, brought him accolades at home and abroad (from UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, no less), but the heady days were brief, ending abruptly with Russia's economic crash in 1998 and with a concomitant dive in Nemtsov's own political fortunes, including his resignation as deputy prime minister.

Nemtsov had also held a leadership role in the young political reformist Turks during Yeltsin's eight-year tenure—these included Yigor Gaidar, (prime minister for a period], Grigory Yavlinsky (head of the Yabloko liberal movement in the Duma, of which much was expected by Western Russia experts) and Anatoly Chubais, who remains a player in the economic and political leadership circles in Moscow. Whether by dint of personal rivalry, however, or by misjudging the appetite of the Russian people for the "shock therapy" administered to the economy (with disastrous results—"all shock, no therapy" was a favorite dark assessment at the time)—Nemtsov and his cofounders of the Union of Right Forces, sputtered to get the proposed alliance of liberal democratic movements off the ground. The heyday came in the December 1999 parliamentary elections, in which the Union secured just 6 million votes or 8.6 percent of the total. By 2003, their tally had been halved, to 4 percent, below the 5 percent threshold required for representation in the Duma. It was the end of Nemtsov's political career—at least in Russia: in an ironic twist of fate, while moving to head an oil company in 2004, he also became a "political advisor" to the disastrous administration of Viktor Yushenko in Ukraine.

Over the last decade of his life, Nemtsov had been a strident critic of Putin, and in 2008 he joined forces with the controversial former chess champion (and distinctly nationalist) fellow dissident, Gary Kasparov. He spoke out at what he perceived as rampant corruption in the awarding of contracts for the Sochi winter Olympics and finally, of course, articulated forcefully his version of Russia's role in eastern Ukraine. A foe of Putin most certainly, therefore; but back to the question surrounding the assassination: Cui bono? Not Putin's, surely for several reasons.

First, Nemtsov, as we have seen, had been around as an irritant to the president since he first assumed office 14 years ago; he was not exactly a rising star in the opposition movement—that role is filled by such as Alexei Navalny. Second, and related to the last point, whatever day Nemtsov had in the political sun had long past: starkly put, to the substantial majority of the 80 percent of Russians who give high approval ratings to Putin, Nemtsov is either an unknown or unsympathetic figure. Third, it follows that Putin stands only to lose as a result of this tragic event: Nemtsov may indeed have been prepared to produce "evidence" of Russia's military engagement in Ukraine, but surely others would be privy to this—any "smoking gun" will not vanish with Nemtsov; and on this topic, Putin may claim until kingdom come to the contrary, but the Western media, like the Obama administration, are in lockstep with Nemtsov. The bottom line for Putin is: like the Odessa outrage of last year, blame may never be accurately assigned, but suspicion will linger.

Finally, there is one Kremlin-relevant theory on Nemtsov that is as chilling as it is plausible. It is put forward by some knowledgeable Kremlin watchers in Moscow, and it comes back to the possibility of a rogue element of the military or security services, or a fringe ultranationalist or extreme religious group. For these people, the president’s actions and postures in and on Ukraine, indeed his entire approach to what they see as a relentless attack on Russia's interests from the West, and particularly the United States, are at best inadequate, at worst even treasonous. This is a phenomenon largely overlooked in Western assessments of Putin's Russia—the dangerous extreme forces with access to, and the ear of, corners of the Kremlin, and it is an oversight that is rash and myopic.

Further reading:

Is Nemtsov's Murder a Replay of Kirov's? Ambassador Jack Matlock, personal website, March 1, 2015

Russia: Another Dead Democrat Amy Knight, New York Review of Books, March 2, 2015

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