A week after one of his most prominent opposition figures was brazenly and brutally killed in a public place just steps away from the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin has called on the police to rid Russia of the “shame and tragedy” of political crimes such as the “audacious murder” of Boris Nemtsov. He has vowed that “the most serious attention” will be paid to such crimes. This is unlikely, however, to silence suspicions among the increasingly spare opposition that the state was complicit in the assassination, especially as Putin also urged a continuing crackdown on “extremists” and “unsanctioned” protests. No arrests have yet been made.
There have been instances in the past decade of opposition to the regime being eliminated — in 2006, a journalist was gunned down in an elevator; Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent, was found dead of polonium poisoning while in exile in London; and in 2009, two human rights activists were killed — but Nemtsov is the first major political leader to be murdered in nearly 10 years. His assassination suggests a new line in political violence in modern Russia has been crossed.
Nemtsov, though visible, was not particularly popular with Russians, who associated him with the turmoil of the Boris Yeltsin years, and was arguably not a plausible political threat to Putin. A rumoured report proving Russia’s involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine could hardly have posed a challenge to the Kremlin’s well-oiled propaganda machine. But many, especially in the rising numbers of radical-nationalist outfits, considered Nemtsov to be a traitor for criticising Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its subsequent operations in Ukraine. Could Nemtsov’s murder then portend that the nationalist fervour Putin has fanned to extend and preserve his iron control over the country — especially at a time when the Russian economy appears to be in freefall — is now a force beyond his control?