Exactly a year to the day after Putin commenced his annexation of the Crimea, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was murdered in Moscow on 27th February.
Nemtsov was certainly no critic of Putin from the left.
In the early 1990s he had been Governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region. He pursued aggressive neo-liberal and privatisation policies, winning the admiration of Margaret Thatcher when she visited the region in 1993.
In the late 1990s he served as Yeltsin’s First Deputy Prime Minister and oversaw the sweeping “free market” reforms which impoverished broad swathes of the Russian population. Yeltsin was so impressed by Nemtsov’s reform that he groomed him as his chosen successor.
An article on the website of the Russian Socialist Movement sums up Nemtsov’s early political career:
“In the late 1990s it was impossible to imagine Nemtsov as an icon of the protest movement. His name was mentioned in connection with countless dodgy financial deals of the privatisation period. He was surrounded by figures with openly criminal backgrounds.
His style as Nizhny Novgorod governor was often characterised as authoritarian. Most important of all, Nemtsov was seen as one of the creators of the neo-liberal socio-economic policies which resulted in the financial default of 1998.”
Nemtsov resigned from his post following the 1998 financial crisis. When Yeltsin appointed Putin as his successor, Nemtsov backed the new President: “Russia could do considerably worse than have a leader with an unwavering commitment to the national interest. And it is difficult to see how to do better.”
But Nemtsov soon moved into the opposition camp. He helped found the Union of Right Forces, an electoral bloc committed to the continuation of the “free market” and privatisation policies of the 1990s and to the implementation of liberal-conservative social policies.
Nemtsov became increasingly critical of Putin’s authoritarianism. When the Union of Right Forces split in 2008, he co-founded “Solidarity” in an attempt to unite the liberal opposition to Putin. In 2007, 2010 and 2011 Nemtsov was arrested on anti-Putin protests.
Nemtsov was subsequently one of the founders of the “For Russia Without Lawlessness and Corruption” party, later renamed the People’s Freedom Party, but refused registration as a political party by the Ministry of Justice in 2011.
Despite the limitations of Nemtsov’s own politics and – given his record in power in the 1990s – the limited support he was able to attract, Putin’s propaganda machine built up Nemtsov into a major hate figure.
Routinely denounced as an American spy, Nemtsov was branded a “fifth columnist” by the Putin-loyal media. An anti-Nemtsov ‘documentary’, “Anatomy of a Protest” was due to be screened by one television channel two days after his murder.
Nemtsov’s name figured prominently in the lists of “fifth columnists” and “national traitors” circulated by ultra-nationalist organisations. A huge banner-portrait denouncing him as a traitor was on permanent display outside a Moscow bookshop.
Less than a week before the murder 35,000 Putin loyalists marched through Moscow on a Kremlin-organised “anti-Maidan” protest, denouncing the Ukrainian government as a “fascist junta” and Russian liberals as the accomplices and agents of Ukrainian “fascism”.
Demonstrators carried pictures of Nemtsov, identifying him as the leader of the “fifth column” in Russia, and would-be “organiser of the (Russian) Maidan”. Other placards bore slogans such as “Let’s destroy the fifth column” and “Let’s take care of the liberals”.
The linkage between Nemtsov and Ukraine was no accident. At the time of his murder Nemtsov was writing a report exposing Russian involvement in the conflict in south-east Ukraine. And two days after his murder Nemtsov was to have led an anti-war demonstration in Moscow.
(The material gathered by Nemtsov is unlikely to see the light of day. It was siezed by the Russian security services as part of their ‘investigation’ into his murder.)
If Putin was not directly involved in the chain-of-command that resulted in Nemtsov’s murder, the nationalist hysteria he has whipped up around the annexation of the Crimea and the war in south-east Ukraine was certainly the driving force behind the murder.
And even the murder itself has been used to add to the hysteria. Putin-loyalists have claimed that Nemtsov’s “American handlers” ordered his murder in order to “destabilise the situation in Russia.”
Russian opposition leaders have been murdered (Nemtsov), imprisoned (Navalny), and driven into exile (Kasparov). Nemtsov’s murder – whoever bears ultimate responsibility for it – underlines the ruthless nationalist authoritarianism employed by Putin to maintain his grip on power.
The Murder of Boris Nemtsov
“Open Left” (Russia) Editorial Board
At the moment it is difficult to say how the killing of Boris Nemtsov will change the situation in the country – but there can be no question that the situation will change.
This act of terror, whoever carried it out, is inseparable from the unbridled chauvinist propaganda which has accompanied the aggressive foreign policies of the Kremlin for the past year.
One of the main themes of this propaganda – as far back as Putin’s Crimean speech (18th March, 2014, in which Putin approved the Russian annexation of the Crimea) – has been hatred of the “fifth column” and the “national traitors”, with this hatred playing the role of rallying the nation in the face of adversity.
The “enemy within” was not anonymous. It had several faces, constantly portrayed on billboards of shame, and several names, infinitely repeated on television. One of them – the enemies – was Boris Nemtsov.
Even on the eve of Nemtsov’s death the NTV television channel was preparing the latest dirty “investigation” of the “Russian Maidan”, in which Nemtsov was cast yet again as one of its principal actors.
Yes, Boris Nemtsov was one of the most important figures in the Yeltsin elite in the second half of the 1990s and bears complete responsibility (to the same degree, for example, as Putin) for the social catastrophes and political crimes of that period.
His opinions can definitely be termed right-liberal, and his foreign-policy orientation pro-American. But we know that similar views do not prevent many people today from occupying leading positions in the Russian government or in powerful commercial companies.
But the unspoken rule is a ban on public criticism of the activities of the Kremlin authorities in Ukraine, and a ban on public protests against the presence of Russian troops on the territory of another country.
But it was precisely this rule that Boris Nemtsov consistently breached. This was what put him in a leading position amongst the “enemies within”. Precisely this was the real reason for his murder.
Of course, the murder of Nemtsov came as an unpleasant surprise to the Russian authorities, who continue to use their last resources to prop up the illusion of stability and governability in the country.
But those who ordered and carried out the murder may be certain elements among the “physical hardliners” who have an interest in ramping up the tension, and independent groups of the officially sponsored “anti-Maidan” which have emerged from the veterans of Novorossiya and the fighters of Kadyrov (Russian-backed Chechen leader).
In any case, the further course of events will depend on how society responds to the murder. The political agenda in the country has changed, and the murder has become the key political question of the moment. We must demand:
- An independent and transparent investigation of the murder of Boris Nemtsov.
- An immediate end to the aggressive propaganda on central television channels which whips up hatred in society.
- Genuine and unconditional freedom of speech and assembly.
- An end to the military intervention in Ukraine.
- Development of an anti-crisis programme to help people rather than banks and oil corporations.