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Russia: Another Dead Democrat

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Alexandra Krasnova/Corbis Images
Slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, presenting an investigation of Putin’s lavish lifestyle, Moscow, August 28, 2012

Among the many questions surrounding the murder of Russian politician and liberal activist Boris Nemtsov on Friday evening, one of the most troubling is the location of the crime itself. Not only was he very close to the Kremlin when he was shot dead on Bol’shoi Moskvoretsky Bridge. He was also in an area that was under the intense surveillance—both with cameras and physical patrols—of the Federal Protection Service (FSO), a security agency that since 1996 has been under the direct control of the Russian president. When Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, he made Evgenii Murov, a trusted ally from the St. Petersburg security services, the director of the FSO. It is very powerful, with 20,000 troops and the authority to conduct searches and surveillance without warrants; among other things it operates a secure communications system for senior Kremlin officials.

Before the murder Nemtsov had dinner at a restaurant on Red Square, just minutes from the bridge, with a female companion (who was with him when he was shot and survived the shooting unscathed). It would have been impossible to know beforehand when they would leave the restaurant and where they would go next, without tapping into Nemtsov’s cell phone or lingering in the area waiting for them, which would have immediately attracted the attention of the ubiquitous surveillance cameras. (And of course Nemtsov, as a major opposition figure with a history of antagonizing the government, was likely under surveillance himself.) The killers were highly professional, judging from the accurate shots in Nemtsov’s heart, lungs, and head. They must have been confident of their impunity to act so boldly. The newspaper Kommersant has reported that the video surveillance cameras were not operating at the place of the shooting. They were allegedly “under repair.”

Nor does one have to look very hard to find a motive. Few critics of the Kremlin were as fearless and outspoken as Nemtsov. For years, Nemtsov has been compiling reports that meticulously document Putin’s abuse of power and widespread corruption in the government. In his 2008 report, cowritten with Vladimir Milov, Putin. Itogi. Nezavisimyi Ekspertnyi Doklad (Putin: The Results: An Independent Expert Report), he wrote:

Assets are being removed from state ownership and handed over to the control of private people, property is being purchased with state money back from the oligarchs at stunning prices, a friends-of-Putin oil export monopoly is being created, and a Kremlin “black safe” [slush fund] is being funded. This is a brief outline of the criminal system of government that has taken shape under Putin.

Writing about the report in The New York Review at the time, I asked Nemtsov’s coauthor Milov if he and Nemtsov worried for their safety, in view of what had happened to Anna Politskovkaya and other political activists:

He said with a laugh that if anything bad happened to him or Nemtsov, it would be a “huge advertisement” for the book and attract Russian readers, who know nothing about it.

Nemtsov was well known for expressing his contempt for Putin publicly, sometimes with more than a tinge of sarcasm. In one interview two years ago, Nemtsov, who was a large and very physically fit man, joked about Putin’s small stature and remarked that “all Russia’s fierce tyrants have been small—Ivan the Terrible, Lenin, Stalin.”

In recent months, however, Nemtsov mentioned that he was increasingly fearful that his life was in danger. A vocal critic of Putin’s Ukraine policy, he had lobbied for western sanctions against Russia by contacting Western leaders and politicians, which in the eyes of the Kremlin was tantamount to treason. He had meanwhile been finishing another report on the government; called Putin and the War, it was intended to document Russia’s covert military involvement in Ukraine. In an interview on radio Ekho Moskvy just hours before he was killed, Nemtsov said:

The main reason for the crisis [Russia is in] is that Putin started this insane policy of war with Ukraine, which is aggressive and murderous for our country. The presence of Russian troops in Ukraine is well-documented…Why are Russian soldiers being killed, while you, Mr. Putin, commander-chief, disown these soldiers by lying that they don’t take part in the fighting?

At the time of his death, Nemtsov was also planning a major opposition rally, which had been scheduled to take place on March 1. It was supposed to protest Russia’s military incursions in Ukraine and the continuing incarceration of Nadia Savchenko, a Ukrainian air force pilot who had been captured by the Ukrainian rebels and handed over to Russian authorities in June 2014 and was in grave danger because of a hunger strike. (After the murder the rally was turned into a memorial march for Nemtsov, which drew as many as 50,000 people according to some estimates.)

According to Milov, Nemtsov’s long-time associate in the Russian opposition and a former government official, the authorities were very nervous about the rally. The Kremlin has been trying to negotiate a peace agreement in Ukraine that is favorable to the rebels, and a major demonstration against Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine would have been particularly embarrassing. Since Friday, Milov has been in contact with several former members of the security services, who have said they have “little doubt” that the Kremlin ordered the killing. The conclusion is only one, says Milov: “The motive was to sow fear.” Indeed, one wonders if the place Nemtsov was shot, on a highly visible street so close to the Kremlin, was deliberately chosen with this in mind.

If Milov is correct, the murder of Boris Nemtsov fits into a long and well-established pattern of politically-motivated killings in Putin’s Russia. Since Putin came to power in January 2000, at least twenty-three journalists have been murdered in Russia for their investigative reporting on government malfeasance, along with several anti-Kremlin political activists. In only two of these cases have there been convictions for the murders. The story is always the same: prosecutors go through the motions of conducting an investigation and sometimes make a few arrests. There may even be a trial or two, as with the Anna Politkovskaya case. But the people who ordered the killing are never identified. Consider the following, partial list of such murders that have occurred under Putin’s watch, beginning with his appointment in 1998 as head of the FSB:

November 1998: Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova, a human rights activist and an outspoken critic of the Kremlin, shot to death in her St. Petersburg apartment building.

July 2000: Igor Domnikov, reporter for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta who wrote about government corruption, dies in Moscow two months after being severely beaten.

April 2003: Sergei Yushenkov, Duma deputy and co-chairman of the Liberal Russia party, gunned down at the entrance to his apartment building. Yushenkov was serving at the time as co-chairman of the so-called Kovalev Commission, which was investigating the 1999 apartment bombings in Russia and the Kremlin’s possible role.

July 2003: Novaya Gazeta reporter Iuri Shchekochikhin, investigating at the time high-level corruption in the law enforcement agencies, dies from what is believed to have been poisoning with Thallium. Shchekochikhin was also a member of the Kovalev Commission.

July 2004: Paul Klebnikov, American editor of Forbes Russia, shot to death in Moscow. He was investigating organized crime and its connections with the Russian government.

September 2006: Andrei Kozlov, first deputy chairman of Russia’s Central Bank, who was, among other reforms, trying to put a stop to money-laundering, shot dead on a Moscow street

October 2006: Novaya Gazeta reporter Anna Politkovskaya, known for her opposition to the second war in Chechnya and President Putin, gunned down in the stairwell of her apartment building. Although police eventually arrested and convicted five of participating in and carrying out the killing, the mastermind was never identified.

November 2006: Former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko, an outspoken critic of Putin, who had been granted asylum in Britain, poisoned by polonium-210, a highly lethal and very rare substance, which the killers inadvertently spread all over London.

November 2006: Maksim Maksimov, investigative reporter for the St. Petersburg weekly Gorod, declared dead on November 30, 2006, two years after he was reported missing. At the time he went missing he was investigating the unsolved 1998 murder in St. Petersburg of Galina Starovoitova.

March 2007: Ivan Safronov, apparently pushed to his death from his Moscow apartment window. A respected correspondent for Kommersant, Safronov was investigating a secret sale of Russian missiles and fighter jets to Syria and Iran.

October 2008: Prominent lawyer Karina Moskalenko, who pursues cases in international courts against the Russian government for human rights abuses and has also represented the family of Anna Politkovskaya, was poisoned by mercury placed in her car but survived.

January 2009: Russian human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov shot and killed on a Moscow Street, along with a reporter for Novaya Gazeta, Anastasia Barburova.

July 2009: Natalya Estemirova, human rights activist and contributor to Novaya Gazeta, shot dead near the capital of Chechnya, Grozny. She reported on extra-judicial killings, abductions, and torture in Chechnya by federal and local authorities.

November 2009: Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian accountant who had made allegations about large-scale theft in the government, died while languishing ill in prison after being arrested on false charges.

April 2013: Mikhail Beketov, died from apparent complications arising from a November 2008 attack by unknown assailants that crushed his skull and left him in a coma for months. Beketov was a journalist who reported on government corruption involving the highly controversial construction of a highway through the Khimki Forest, near Moscow.

It is ironic that at this very moment the British government is conducting an exhaustive and expensive inquiry into the involvement of the Russian government in Litvinenko’s murder, despite the possible repercussions for Britain’s relationship with the Kremlin. The verdict seems likely to be that, yes, the Kremlin ordered his murder. It will be the only honest and thorough examination of any of the brutal crimes committed against political adversaries of the Kremlin. A central purpose of the British inquiry is to send a message to the Kremlin that the Litvinenko killing was not just a murder, but an act of terrorism on British soil that cannot happen again.

Meanwhile, another such political killing has occurred in Russia, raising many of the same questions. Perhaps its unprecedented brazenness this time will stir more people to join the opposition and confront the regime with this long history of lawlessness. But we are unlikely to be told who was behind the killers. Instead, responding to the international outcry, President Putin has announced an official investigation, one that will be overseen by him personally—and that has been implicitly endorsed by the Obama administration. How can this crime be investigated transparently and objectively by Putin and his security services when so much of the evidence points to their own complicity?