Ophelia Lai reports on the murder of Russian politician Boris Nemtsov and considers what it could mean for Russian democracy
On the night of 28th February, liberal Russian politician Boris Nemtsov was murdered as he crossed the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge in Moscow. He was shot four times in the back within walking distance of the Kremlin, in one of the most heavily policed and surveilled areas of Moscow.
Theories as to who is responsible for Nemtsov’s death have sprung up faster than you can say “murder”, with ideas ranging from Ukrainian elites to a CIA conspiracy. Russian authorities have been most generous in this regard, with the Russian Investigative Committee naming “Islamic extremism” and a plot within Nemtsov’s opposition movement to create a martyr as possible lines of investigation.
The head of the Committee, Vladimir Markin, has called the murder “a provocation aimed at destabilising the country”.
The Western media initially pounced on the fact that Nemtsov had said, in an interview mere weeks before his death, that he feared Russian President Vladimir Putin would have him killed for his political views, especially on the crisis in Ukraine, for which he held Putin responsible. Russian media has largely omitted this in its coverage.
Frankly, none of this matters.
Nemtsov could have been assassinated on orders from Putin or Ukrainians or rogue extreme Russian nationalists. Given Russia’s less-than-exemplary track record in bringing those responsible for political assassinations to justice, chances are we will never know.
What matters is context.
What matters is that the silencing of one of Putin’s most vocal political opponents is in Putin’s interests – at least in the short term and where the issue of Ukraine is concerned. Nemtsov’s criticisms were directly aimed at Putin. Recently, he placed the blame for the violence in Ukraine and Western sanctions against Russia squarely on the President’s shoulders – not on Ukrainian fascists, not on anti-Russian Western conspirators, but on the President. He was holding President Putin to account in a society where the institutional mechanisms to do so do not exist.
Now he is dead.
Those in Russia who openly criticise Putin will not fail to recognise the possible connection, and for those who believe that there is a connection, the message has rung out loud and clear: you are not safe.
In a society where criminal charges against individuals considered “problematic” to the state conveniently materialise and ubiquitous propaganda justifies everything the state says and does, any sense of “truth” and “reality” is distorted.
In this context, the results of the official investigation are irrelevant because, no matter how far removed from the Kremlin the culprits shown on Russian state television are (if indeed their identities are even revealed), the possibility the state had something to do with Nemtsov’s murder will never fully disappear.
This mere possibility creates a climate of fear, and fear easily leads to silence — a silence that Russian democracy cannot afford as long as corruption remains endemic, elections are unfair (if not rigged), and non-state news media is marginalised (if not downright suppressed).
Nemtsov’s murder silenced one voice of the opposition. The worst-case scenario is that it silences many more.
Featured image credit: Antti Viktor Rauhala