The motivation behind the murder of Russian dissident activist leader Boris Nemtsov outside the Kremlin on Friday night isn’t yet clear, but there are strong suspicions by some of his sympathizers that the killing was meant to deal a blow to the Russian opposition movement, for which Nemtsov largely acted as a figurehead. He was buried Tuesday in Moscow and many of his supporters walked away from his memorial service wondering what the future held for the opposition, now left without one of its key leaders.
Nemtsov’s killing could either garner sympathy and support for the Russian opposition or it could just as likely succeed in intimidating the thousands of Russians with opposition leanings into distancing themselves from Russia's contentious political voices. Many analysts are not optimistic about the opposition's future.
Gary Kasparov, a former Russian chess champion and one of President Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken critics, appeared pessimistic in an interview with Reuters Monday, saying he saw “no chance for Russia now to move from Putin's brutal dictatorship into something that will be even [as] mild as we had 10 years ago.” Nemtsov’s death is “a signal to everybody that’s engaged in opposition activities that all bets are off,” he added.
The loss of Nemtsov is significant because, other than he and activist politician Alexei Navalny, few other Russian opposition leaders attract any significant support. Nemtsov led the coalition Republican Party of Russia-People’s Freedom Party, formed in 2012 with other prominent opposition leaders -- including former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and former Russian legislator member Vladimir Ryzhkov, who do not hold the same clout with voters despite their prominence.
Navalny has been arrested numerous times for what many critics describe as trumped-up charges of embezzlement and fraud and for breaking his house arrest. Last month he was given a suspended three-and-a-half-year sentence, while his brother was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail in what some saw as an intimidation play to hurt those near Navalny to convince him to be quiet.
“They seem to be unable to create a momentum for the opposition that can capture the public imagination,” said Konstatin von Eggert, a Russian political commentator for BBC. “Partly this is due to the understandable fear of Russians towards radical change. The collapse of the USSR is still a fresh memory for many. That stability is cherished above most other things."
Russian politics has evolved into a violent and contentious environment that has led to a more radical constituency that vilifies their opponents, which encourages violence. The Kremlin has consolidated state media outlets, which often push pro-Kremlin messages to their audiences and characterize the Russian opposition as dangerous to Russian sovereignty.
Russia’s federal legislature, the Duma, is dominated by Putin’s conservative United Russia party, which holds 52 percent of the Duma’s 450 seats. The Russian Communist Party, A Just Russia and LDPR party share the rest of the Duma seats and are not considered to be part of the “opposition” in Russia.
The Russian opposition movement is fragmented and made up of Russians from the left, right and center. Many opposition parties are bankrolled by Russian oligarchs who lost out in the years following the fall of the Soviet Union and Putin's subseqent rise to power. The rest of the opposition is largely made up of activist groups and students. The opposition is held together by a common goal of bringing real democracy to Russia, which suffers under intense political intimidation and centralized control of politics and the economy under now 15-year-leader Putin.
“Pro-government and nationalist groups embraced this rhetoric and routinely and publically harassed Kremlin’s critics, including Nemtsov, casting them as enemies to Russia paid to destabilize the country by their Western masters,” wrote Tanya Cooper, a Russia specialist at Human Rights Watch, in a blog post following Nemtsov’s death. “A country in which people are told to hate one another for difference of opinions is a dangerous country to live in.”
Navalny is just one of many opposition voices who have been tried in questionable courts and sent to labor or prison camps in Siberia over the last 15 years. A handful of others met a grimmer fate, such as journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who wrote about human rights abuses in Chechnya and was murdered in Moscow in 2006. Most state investigations have ended inconclusively. Many Kremlin opponents, including Kasparov and Boris Berezovsky, left Russia for refuge elsewhere, but that hasn’t always kept them safe. Berezovsky was found dead in his London apartment in 2013 under somewhat mysterious circumstances, and Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent-turned Putin critic, was fatally poisoned with radioactive material in a London hotel in 2006.
State Duma member Ilya Ponomarev, who was the only legislator to vote against the annexation of Crimea, talked to WBUR about Nemtsov’s murder. He said he had no doubt that the Kremlin had something to do with Nemtsov's death. He admitted he was worried about his safety but like many other Kremlin critics, he feels a duty to serve as an opposition voice.
“I actually was expecting something like this to happen. I just was very much surprised that they picked off Boris Nemtsov,” he said. “I thought that they would pick off somebody a little bit more popular inside the country for this, but I probably underestimated that they really wanted [the] West to be shaken.”