Although few doubted the seriousness of his political convictions, Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov also had a reputation as a charmer and something of a playboy. Yet one of a very few opposition leaders who always seemed to manage to keep a smile on his face, despite taking the huge risk of publicly opposing the Kremlin, was brutally gunned down on Friday.
Nemtsov, a former first deputy prime minister in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin, was shot four times in the back by an unidentified gunman as he walked across Moscow’s Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge with his girlfriend of three years, the Ukrainian model Anna Duritskaya. His murder shocked Russia’s capital with tens of thousands marching in his memory over the weekend.
Dmitry Peskov, the press spokesperson for President Vladimir Putin, moved swiftly to deny any suggestion that the Kremlin was involved in the murder. The Russian government has even offered a reward of €45,000 for information leading to the conviction of the killer of Nemtsov. But major questions remain unanswered.
Nemtsov had been right in the centre of Moscow on Friday evening, dining in a well-known restaurant next to Moscow’s iconic Red Square. In fact the bridge on which he was shot lies only a couple of hundred metres from the walls of the Kremlin — probably the most secure and closely monitored location in Russia.
Here’s a map to the site:
The exact spot where the opposition politician was gunned down was easily in sight of the many closed-circuit television cameras dotted along the famous red-brick walls of the president’s official residence. In fact, reporters on the scene took pictures of cameras that appear to be looking directly at the spot in question.
A grainy video has emerged of the incident, which appears to show the attacker taking cover in a stairwell to wait for Nemtsov to arrive before emerging to shoot the politician as he passed. Russian security expert Andrei Soldatov told the Telegraph that the apparent professionalism of the hit indicated the killer “had training from the security services or was involved with the security services”.
Accounts differ, but most reports suggest that it took police between 10-15 minutes to arrive on the scene despite its proximity to the Kremlin.
Given Nemtsov’s relatively modest role in Russian politics in recent years — he was a member of the regional parliament of Yaroslavl Oblast — and his limited support base, it seems highly unlikely that he was a major concern for the Kremlin. Moreover, the brutal nature of his killing is in marked contrast to the treatment of another opposition activist, the anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, who has been hounded through the courts since leading a series of huge protests against the government following the disputed parliamentary elections in 2011.
Navalny was convicted of fraud in December and given a three and a half-year suspended sentence. This was despite a key prosecution witness contradicting himself in his testimony to the court claiming, when challenged, that he had “been under a lot of stress” and forgotten a lot of things. Similar charges had been filed in 2011 but were dismissed the following year due to lack of evidence.
Instead, Nemtsov’s murder is being widely attributed to the government’s decision to build a climate of paranoia and distrust of those who speak out against the authorities in Russia through its control of large parts of the media. Critics accuse the government of using state-owned media as propaganda outlets to label opposition activists and politicians as traitors and spread misinformation about western influence in the country through the activities of a so-called “fifth column” — clandestine groups allegedly working to bring down the state.
In this analysis, Nemtsov was “killed by the propaganda of hatred”. In today’s Russia such an analysis seems sadly not overly far-fetched.
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