By Indrani Talukdar
Boris Nemtsov, leader of the opposition party in Russia, was gunned down on February 27, indicating a highly professional assassination. Russian President Vladimir Putin said it was a sign of contract murder and was extremely provocative . Various versions of the killing are surfacing, calling it an attempt to destabilize Russia, claiming the involvement of the Islamic extremists because of Nemstov’s position in the Charlie Hebdo incident, as well as suggestions of the Ukraine conflict and his personal life. The involvement of the president has not been ruled out, as Nemtsov was one of Putin’s most adamant and visible critics. Western leaders along with friends and supporters of Nemstov have accused Putin because the assassination took place after a radio interview in which Nemstov denounced Putin’s ‘mad, aggressive’ policies. He had organised a rally protesting Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the economic crisis at home. According to Ukrainian President Peter Poreshenko, Nemtsov was killed for a report he was preparing that presented evidence that he believed proved Russia’s direct involvement in the separatist rebellion in Ukraine, which Moscow has been denying.
Several other theories are also being investigated: Nemstov’s lineage of Jewish identity, his crusade against corruption, his insistence on increase in taxes and the transfer of it by the Yaroslavl refinery to the regional budget, the involvement of Western intelligentsia and the involvement of the ultra nationalists.
However, suspicions are weighing heavily towards Putin’s involvement because of Nemstov’s report of the Kremlin’s connection in Ukraine and the zealous attitude of the ultra nationalists who are fighting in Ukraine. The ultra nationalists who are fighting alongside the rebels are suspected because of their battle-hardened attitude, dosed with an extreme sense of nationalism, that is spurred on by propaganda in the state media. It is assumed that Nemtsov’s political stance, which was liberal and pro-Western, did not fit in with the nationalists of the world. This impression is given because of the ways they have punished Nemstov for being liberal and pro-West, which is against their image of a new Russia or Novorussiya. Vladimir Markin, spokesman for the Investigative Committee, said that “it’s no secret that both sides of that conflict have among their ranks very radical figures who take no orders from any authority.”
Although Putin is not directly involved, his indictment of the opposition parties as ‘fifth columns’ might have triggered the crime. In the recent years, Nemtsov has been identified by Kremlin propaganda as among the leaders of a ‘fifth column,’ painted as a traitor serving the interests of a hostile West. Russia is ruled under President Vladimir Putin’s ‘sovereign democracy’ which has led to the strengthening of zealous nationalism, both within Russia and in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, which is intolerant to anything or anyone pro-West. Under the Kremlin government, a pro-Putin youth foundation movement, Nashi, was founded in 2005, which was set up with the backing of the presidential administration to tackle the threat posed by the so-called Orange Revolution in Russia.
The ideology of Nashi is characterised as xenophobic and nationalistic. Nashi claims that it wants to end the conspiracy of oligarchs, anti-Semites, Nazis and liberals against Russia. Together with other opponents, such as communists and ‘Westernizers,’ Nashi accuses them of fascism. It is also characterised by a cult-like adoration of Putin, extreme hostility towards the opposition, a romanticised view of the Soviet past and the belief that Russia’s rightful place in international politics should be restored. Considering these characteristics of the youth movement, the involvement of Nashi to protect Putin and Russia’s image cannot be ruled out in the assassination.
Another angle of the killing could be from the radical wing Right Sector of Ukraine. The Ukrainian crisis is becoming murkier with the rebels gaining grounds over the most strategic cities of Ukraine. The West has not been able to gain the support of Putin to contain the pro-Russian separatists. Although the West has imposed sanctions on Russia and, with the help of Germany and France, the Minsk II agreement was signed last month, the Kiev government has still not been able to control the situation. In order to contain Russia’s position in the crisis, these right wing activists might have assassinated Nemstov in order to damage Russia’s already shaky image in the international community.
Although two suspects hailing from Chechnya have been detained but many aspects are entangled within the mystery of the murder of Nemstov, which has further complicated the situation in Russia. It has already been reeling under the severe sanctions imposed by the West, and, with the death of Nemstov, things will be even tougher for Russia.
Dr. Indrani Talukdar is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi, India.