David Kramer
David Kramer
The senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute
The Assassination of Boris Nemtsov – One Year Later

The brazen murder and its subsequent investigation demonstrate the nature and fragility of the Russian political regime.

A year ago this Saturday, Boris Nemtsov, one of Russia’s leading opposition figures and a true Russian patriot, was brazenly gunned down in the shadow of the Kremlin in the most guarded area of Moscow. His political assassination symbolized the devolution of the Russian political regime toward Fortress Russia in which the identification of enemies inside and outside of Russia becomes the basis for political legitimization and survival. Such a system, which depends on rejecting any alternative and political opposition out of hand as a threat, can lead to deadly results.

Today, one year after Boris’ assassination, the Kremlin has reconfirmed this logic as it dashes all hopes for a fair and honest investigation. Five hit men, Chechen in origin, were apprehended as suspects; the Russian Investigative Committee declared the case solved without bothering to look for those who ordered the murder or the real motives behind it, making the investigation a cynical farce.

The leading suspects appear to be military officers of the Ministry of Interior battalion “North” directly responsive to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. The alleged organizer belongs to his tight entourage, and he reportedly has already left Russia. The Russian investigators were not even allowed to talk to him. Many Russian observers predict that the perpetrators, if convicted, will be sentenced to serve their time in Chechnya, from where they will be set free. This constitutes Russian justice these days.

Nemtsov’s tragic assassination opens a new chapter in the regime’s ongoing crackdown against its opponents. At a time of deepening economic crisis and growing social woes, the Kremlin believes it has no choice but to turn the political landscape of Russia into the Sahara desert, erasing completely whatever still remains and through whatever means necessary. And yet this only confirms the fragility of the Russian scene: political stability is an illusory image that the Kremlin propagates and, in turn, contributes to President Putin’s high approval rating. After all, if his ratings were indeed so high and the situation so stable, why would the authorities need to snuff out any perceived threats?

Nemtsov’s murder, however, should not be viewed simply as the Kremlin’s desperate effort to survive. On the one hand, many observers believe his assassination would not have been possible without the direct participation and assistance of the federal special services, who keep tight control of the Kremlin perimeter and had always monitored Nemtsov. On the other hand, others argue, his murder could have been used by these same services to implicate Kadyrov to precipitate a rupture between him and Putin, with the goal of ending their “mutual dependency” partnership. Regardless of which theory one believes, the fact remains that the system is in an advanced stage of decay and is left legitimizing itself by looking for enemies and building an atmosphere of hate in society in which political assassinations in Russia are the way of life.

Nemtsov’s murder within earshot of the Kremlin raises several key questions: Did Putin order or know about the murder?  If so, what is he afraid of? If the murder took place without his knowledge, is he losing control of the situation? What is clear is that Putin rejected any inquiry into whether Kadyrov’s entourage was involved. It seems he refuses to undermine the unhealthy arrangement that he has with the Chechen warlord, but in the process, he has created an independent regime in Chechnya that is exploiting Moscow’s resources.  A just-released report in Moscow by Ilya Yashin, “Threat to National Security,” describes Kadyrov as a “threat to Russia’s national security.”

And yet Putin wants stability there at any cost, even at the cost of angering his own siloviki (security forces), and he appears convinced that Kadyrov is delivering stability in Chechnya. The result is a paradox: an old empire trying to freeze itself in place with the help of a non-Russian military sultanistic regime, which has become an active player on the federal scene in its own right. This presents a precarious status quo for the Kremlin.

The murder of Nemtsov and its subsequent investigation demonstrate the nature and fragility of the Russian political regime.  Alive, Nemtsov was the politician who succeeded more than most in cajoling and bringing together different segments of the opposition. His demise has left a gaping hole still felt by the Kremlin’s opponents, who are also coming under growing threat and intimidation. At the same time, Boris provided the symbol of resistance and consolidation for the Russian dissent and opposition movement.

A march in Boris’s memory will be held this Saturday, the one-year anniversary of his murder. Authorities in various Russian cities have forbidden such marches. In Moscow, the authorities were forced to give permission to avoid clashes with the opposition. But they refused to allow the march to pass along the bridge where Nemtsov was killed. They must have decided that it was too close to the Kremlin—God knows what the demonstrators would do! In death, Boris is helping to expose the regime’s fears, despite its outward projection of calm and its high approval ratings.

Immediately after Nemtsov’s assassination, about 70,000 Muscovites took to the streets to express their grief and rage. In a city of more than ten million, some may argue that that is not a very impressive turnout. Perhaps fear and apprehension prevented others from joining. We will find out Saturday how many people will take part this time.

Boris Nemtsov was a wonderful human being who cared passionately about his country and offered hope for a brighter future. It is incumbent upon all of us to make sure that his sacrifice, part of Russia’s painful journey, was not in vain.

This article first appeared at the American Interest site. 

Co-author: Lilia Shevtsova,
a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution