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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Nemtsov's Ghost

In the first minutes of the 28th of February in Moscow, Russia's capital and largest city, opposition figure and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov was brutally slaughtered. According to Russia's Interfax news agency, Nemtsov was shot in the back at least four times in a drive-by in view of the majestic Kremlin and the ancient cathedral of St. Basil. Nemtsov was 55.

Very little is known as to why Nemtsov was assassinated. Conspiracy theories immediately whipped around like gusts of wind: Who would do this? Was it the Kremlin? Was it a covert operation meant to destabilize Russia from the outside? Could it have been merely a group of thugs? Organized crime? 

States in North America and Europe will take into account the recent history of Putin's Russia and the Ukraine crisis and will likely be quick to speculate that the state was behind this assassination. It's understandable why: this is not the first anti-Putin figure that's found themselves on the other side of death before they'd planned.

Boris Berezovsky, an oligarch, was an outspoken critic of Putin since he was first elected in 2000, was found dead at his home in Britain in 2013 of an apparent hanging-and there were apparently no signs of a violent struggle according to British police. Berezovsky was allegedly deep into debt and had been exiled from Russia.

Anna Politkovskaya was a reporter for the investigative paper Novaya Gazeta, and unfortunately not the only member of Novaya Gazeta's staff to die from suspicious reasons. She was killed in 2006 in the elevator of her apartment and the editorial staff remember her with this line:

"As long as there is Novaya Gazeta, her murderers will not sleep well."

Five men were sentenced to prison for her death last year but the motive is still unclear. 

Aleksandr Litvinenko is famous for dying of radiation poisoning and cursing Putin before his death in the UK.

"This may be the time to say one or two things to the person responsible for my present condition. You may succeed in silencing me but that silence comes at a price. You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed. You have shown yourself to have no respect for life, liberty or any civilized value. You have shown yourself to be unworthy of your office, to be unworthy of the trust of civilized men and women. You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me, but to beloved Russia and its people."

We don't know for sure whether Putin, the Kremlin, or some element of the Russian Government killed these people. But patterns exist-each of these people were vocal opponents of Putin and each died a suspicious death. It's certainly possible, but innocent until proven guilty still applies. 

Nemtsov certainly seems like the next link in the chain. But was he? And does it even make sense that the Kremlin did this? 

Maybe not, suspicious as they may look. And there are a few reasons why it's possible. 

Berezovsky was found hanged in his own residence in Britain. Politkovskaya was killed in an elevator of her apartment building. Litvinenko was poisoned. 

Hanging seems like a wildly cumbersome way to go about an assassination. Politkovskaya's death  was likely not witnessed by anyone other than the person who did the killing. Litvinenko's killer, whoever it was, was subtle and used a method of assassination that would be hard to identify until it was too late. 

Nemtsov's death was far, far less subtle. Not only was he gunned down in a large city in a country where gun control is very stringent, he was gunned down a stone's throw of the city's most famous landmarks. If it was the Kremlin's work, it was an extraordinarily clumsy attack. Remember this is the country that once had one of the most feared intelligence agencies only 25 years ago-it doesn't seem like something the KGB or FSB would do, repression be damned. 

The other questionable factor of this killing is that Nemtsov, despite his status as a household name in Russia, is no Navalny. It's true that Nemtsov is involved with the opposition to Putin, but he is hardly the charismatic, handsome, relatively young figure with frequent media exposure that Navalny is. So why Nemtsov of all people? The man was considered a member of the last generation by those both in and out of the opposition to Putin-a relic of the Yeltsin years. If the opposition did come to power in the future in Russia, Nemtsov would be fairly far back in the line of possible presidential candidates. 

The other question we need to ask ourselves about this event is-how does Russia react? Various opposition leaders including Nemtsov planned to be at a large (leaders called for 100,000) protest, but whether they'd actually pull 100,000 onto the streets was called into doubt when President Putin enjoys an 86% approval rating.  Will this cowardly assassination galvanize and strengthen the opposition? It's difficult to say, but certainly possible. His bloody end not far from the Kremlin will certainly raise eyebrows and anger people, but the influential state-controlled media was able to convince many Russians that forces loyal to Kiev, rather than pro-Russian rebels, shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 despite a large amount of evidence to claim otherwise. Can they do the same in the event of an drive-by in central Moscow? We'll just have to see, but it seems to have already started as pro-Kremlin outlets have also "innocently" speculated narratives around Nemtsov's womanizing and shady business deals as a cause. 

There will be a funeral for Nemtsov, and it will likely feature many opposition members. Flowers and memorials have already been left near the place Nemtsov was shot. Justice will be demanded, but in a state still marred by considerable corruption, it will likely take a long time-if it is served at all.

What's clear, though, is that the Kremlin will do all in its power to distance itself from this act if evidence emerges that they were somehow involved. Nemtsov's relative irrelevance in the opposition make him a surprising target for assassination, and this could amplify the brutality of the event. If evidence emerges from the investigation that the Kremlin was somehow involved, it could very well jolt the struggling opposition to life and possibly even start to turn Russian public opinion against Putin. And boy would it be ironic if a man who served years in the KGB was brought down by a popular response to a botched assassination.

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