Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was killed two days before a major opposition march.
Allegations that Russian President Vladimir Putin was behind the assassination made headlines in Hong Kong and abroad.
While foreign press often referred to Nemtsov as a “rival” of Putin, a Kremlin spokesman said “[Nemtsov] did not pose any threat to the current Russian leadership or Vladimir Putin”.
This is a question worth pondering: does Putin have a rival?
Despite Russia’s crashing ruble, an almost doubling in capital outflows and a sinking economy, Putin’s approval rating is as high as 86 percent, the most recent poll by the Levada Center, an independent research institute, shows.
“Nemtsov was not a popular figure among the Russian public,” Igor Mintusov, president of the Russian Association of Political Consultants and a friend of Nemtsov’s, told EJ Insight.
While Mintusov praised Nemtsov for being “one of the most courageous and consistent politicians who criticized corrupt authorities, the personal wealth of the most powerful politicians and the war in Ukraine”, he said “Nemtsov didn’t have a high chance of winning an election at the federal level”.
A few days before his death, Nemtsov published a report accusing 133 members of Russia’s parliament of underpaying their taxes, and he had been undertaking an investigation on whether the Kremlin is giving orders to the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, Latvia-based media outlet Meduza reported.
Although he was first deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, Nemtsov was now only a member of the Yaroslavl city legislature.
The question remains: did Putin feel, and should he have felt, threatened by Nemtsov?
Former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was once seen as Putin’s main rival and had the ambition of running for president in 2008, was only put in jail after he was found guilty of embezzlement and money laundering by a Russian court.
Why would Putin kill a member of a city legislature who had almost no chance of winning an election at the federal level?
As Alexander Baunov, a Carnegie researcher and former diplomat put it: “Foreign press accounts suggest Putin’s main rival was killed on the eve of an opposition protest. Many Russians may find this description too simplistic – Russia actually lacks a system in which Putin can even have a rival.”
Mintusov suspects the murder was carried out either by “marginal political supporters of Putin” who might consider Nemtsov an icon of Russia’s traitors, or, on the other hand, the “fifth columnists”, or “radical opponents of Putin”, who sought to take advantage of Nemtsov’s death to challenge “the soft policy of the Russian president against Ukraine and the West”.
No one can be sure about which was the case, but one thing is certain: both possibilities are by-products of Russia’s increasingly polarized society.
“Russia is moving toward becoming a society of hatred and hostility,” Mintusov said.
“The Russian state-owned TV channels keep showing and telling the ordinary citizens how bad ‘the West’, including the United States, is. The idea is that western countries have organized a strategic plot against the Russian Federation to steal its national resources and destroy the economy.”
Baunov said the Russian lexicon has been “enriched by a series of labels for those opposed to crucial domestic and foreign policy decisions”.
“The dissenters are called traitors, the ‘fifth column’, enemy collaborators and destroyers of the country and its values,” he said.
In 2011, Nemtsov was running for mayor in Sochi, which hosted the Winter Olympics a year ago, and his opponents threw ammonia on his face.
In the same year, a private telephone conversation of his was leaked and published by LifeNews, a local media outlet, when the winter protests took place in Moscow.
So he had enemies, but did he deserve to be murdered?
An article by activist and journalist Ksenia Sobchak went viral on the internet, attracting nearly 600,000 page views in five days.
Sobchak said: “Actually it would be in some way less worrying if Putin had ordered Nemtsov’s killing. It would be an awful system, but at least a system, a manageable system.
“But I feel, unfortunately, this is not the case. There is no Putin who gave a command to kill. But there is a Putin who has built an appalling Terminator, and he has lost control of it.”
Sobchak’s view resonates with that of Mintusov, whose business advises companies and individuals on how to work with the Russian government.
“The death of Boris Nemtsov threatens the stability of Russian society,” said Mintusov.
“His death is a sign for society that the government doesn’t control the entire situation in the country.”
It may be true that Nemtsov was neither popular among the majority, nor was he respected by his political opponents.
However, his friend Mintusov described him as a man who was “highly honest” and “non-corrupt”.
“He was a symbolic figure of the real Russian opposition,” Mintusov said.
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