The Cold War may have ended back in the 1990s, but there is certainly a chill in the air in Russia as one of President Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken critics, Boris Nemtsov was gunned down on Friday, February 27. This murder ought to cause concern for the West, especially for the United States as it may be the spark to reignite a volatile Eastern bloc.
Mr. Nemtsov, active in Russian politics since the collapse of the USSR, was an ardent supporter of western style democracy. After moving out of atomic physics, he “rose to prominence in the early 1990s as the reformist governor of the Nizhny Novgorod province.” Clearly Mr. Nemtsov succeeded in these reforms, for it brought him to President Boris Yeltsin’s attention, who later would bring him to Moscow. Daniel Treisman, writing for CNN, indicates the Mr. Nemtsov was being groomed to succeed President Yeltsin back in the late 1990s, but along the way, Vladimir Putin entered the scene and was elected in 2000. Mr. Nemtsov hoped to build Russian democracy, so when President Putin didn’t deliver, Mr. Nemtsov went on the offensive.
The Financial Times was one of the last news organizations to interview him before his death, and their interview revealed Mr. Nemtsov’s vehement (and obvious) displeasure with the current state of Russia. In this quote, Mr. Nemtsov makes a startling comparison regarding the use of turmoil: “Putin uses this — he’s following the principles of Goebbels: propaganda must be primitive, the truth has no significance, the message has to be simple, and must be repeated many times. And must be extremely emotional. Putin has brought Nazism into politics.” He continues alluding to Nazi Germany when calling for “healthy patience”, saying that “Public opinion can’t continue to be like this forever. Like little children, they stop crying eventually. Putin lies. But he can’t hide things forever. There will be more and more graves. And people will feel it’s bad that he’s fighting with a brother nation. Hitler had a reason for not attacking Austria.”
Of course, Mr. Nemtsov would have loved nothing more than for President Putin to be removed from office as quickly as possible. Later in the article, he indicated that though he did see an end in sight, it would be a longer struggle because the Russian populace does not have the energy for change that it did at the close of the Cold War. It is unfortunate that he will now not be able to see it, for the thing that he sought to change ended up killing him. It is to this that we now turn.
The news of Mr. Nemtsov’s assassination comes with as much intrigue as any spy thriller. Many news organizations such as The Telegraph or The Guardian, among others, naturally point to the Kremlin. Luke Harding at The Guardian indicates that Mr. Nemtsov saw this coming, given his recent focus on the war in the Ukraine. Harding does not directly blame the Kremlin, but he does recognize that, “as many of Nemtsov’s friends have pointed out, Putin deliberately fostered the atmosphere of hysteria and hatred. It is this which allowed Nemtsov to be killed. So the moral responsibility rests with him.” Whether or not he pulled the trigger himself, it appears that President Putin shares some of the responsibility.
Unfortunately, figuring out the identity of the killer is proving to be a tough task because the security cameras where the assassination occurred were off due to maintenance. That seems oddly coincidental. (Roland Olihpant, the Telegraph’s Moscow correspondent provides further details in his piece) Nevertheless, leading officials are on the case. Secretary of State John Kerry, already at a UN human rights forum in Geneva, met with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss the assassination. If the Kremlin had anything to do with it, Mr. Lavrov is either unaware or good at covering tracks, for he “called the murder a ‘heinous crime’ and said Vladimir Putin was leading an investigation into it.”
Mr. Nemtsov’s death must not go without reaction. This could be energizing catalyst to make or break the former Eastern bloc. On Sunday, March 1, tens of thousands of mourners flocked to where he was assassinated to show support. If these mourners and more like them were to carry on the work which Mr. Nemtsov was doing, there’s no telling what will become of the Russian state.