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Monday, March 28, 2016

Boris Nemtsov's Life and Legacy

On March 8th, International Women's Day, a panel discussion was held at the George Washington University in Washington, DC to commemorate and remember the life of Russian politician and Putin dissident Boris Nemtsov.

Nemtsov's legacy was mixed. He promoted reform at the local level of government and was received by prominent heads of state such as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Bill Clinton as well as gaining some popularity in the city he built his political career, Nizhny Novgorod. His political prominence in the chaotic 1990s, however, managed to damage his reputation as a fighter of corruption. The 1998 financial crisis also severely hurt his popularity as he was Deputy Prime Minister when it struck. Before that, he looked like a front-runner to succeed President Yeltsin.

Nemtsov remained influential in the Russian government after 2000, but the rising popularity of the Putin administration and its ability to take credit for the economic surge that started in the early 2000s  unfortunately pushed him out of the Duma. After leaving the Duma, Nemtsov consistently and fervently opposed policies set forth by the Putin Administration, which he claimed were eating away at the Russian people's liberties. Nemtsov worked to provide a consistent voice against the most controversial actions of the Putin government including the military operations in Eastern Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, the saga of Ramzan Kadyrov, and the Chechen Wars. For this Nemtsov was known as a "white crow" by his admirers, someone who fought for his principles rather than political expediency.

First to speak at the panel discussion was Andrey Markarychev, a fellow native of Nizhny Novgorod who now teaches at the University of Tartu in Estonia. Mr. Markarychev, like many in the Russian opposition was shocked to hear of Nemtsov's grisly assassination. He was most particularly interested in Nemtsov's exposure of corruption with regards to the Winter Olympics in Sochi and pondered the question-"What place does Nemtsov occupy in Russia and with respect to academic analysis?"

Why did Sochi pique Mr. Nemtsov's interests? For one, he ran for mayor of the Black Sea town. He seemed to believe that the Winter Olympics were not just a celebration of Russia and a mega-event to increase Russia's profile on the world's stage but a celebration of power for the Kremlin. To be clear, Nemtsov didn't oppose the Olympics in principle, but he had a keen eye to recognize the problems that came with it.

Still, his name was not seen much in the lead-up to the Sochi Olympics in many Western news media outlets. Western media was focused on an issue Nemtsov did not focus on at all-the discrimination of LGBT Russians. Nemtsov, by contrast, focused exclusively on corruption issues rather than social issues such as the evictions and environmental concerns.

Nemtsov knew he was facing an uphill battle. Support for the Sochi Olympics on one level was a loyalty test. Support for the Games meant, however indirectly, support of the Putin administration-to oppose the Games led to political isolation.

Mr. Markarychev also pondered what Nemtsov would have thought in regards to the upcoming FIFA World Cup set to happen in the summer of 2018. Sanctions and corruption scandals have already thrown it into question, and the Greek economic catastrophe is often said to have begun when Athens hosted the 2004 Olympic Games.

Nemtsov's national prominence ended in the 2003 State Duma elections in Russia and Professor Henry Hale presented a comprehensive analysis as to why that happened.

Nemtsov voters in 2003 favored a market economy, lived in cities, and favored a western-style democracy as the optimum system of government for their country. Nemtsov ultimately failed to get into the Duma because his pro-market stance was eclipsed by Putin's United Russia effectively taking credit for the economic upturn. By 2003, the Russian media, especially on TV, had become vigorously pro-Putin. The survey run also exposed the fact that Nemtsov's voter base was small to begin with and even if he had been able to get parliamentary representation, it would not have been much. The fractured nature of the "liberal" Russian opposition (for instance, the Yabloko party and their waffling on Chechnya) also meant Nemtsov had to fight against similar parties for the same representation.

That may be the most important lesson for the present-day opposition to learn. If they cannot unite, their small chances of gaining parliamentary representation may evaporate and they may be further undermined. 

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