Boris Nemtsov, a prominent opposition politician and critic of President Vladimir Putin, was shot to death Friday evening while walking on Moscow's Zamoskvoretskiy bridge.
The location of his death — steps from the Kremlin and within view of Moscow's Red Square — seemed horrifyingly fitting, given that Nemtsov had spent more than a decade battling Vladimir Putin.
In 2011, Open Democracy interviewed Nemtsov shortly after he was released from spending two weeks in prison. His answers showed — along with a a playful sense of humor — a remarkably clear understanding of Putin's weaknesses, and of the events that might eventually cause Putin to lose power. Four years later, his comments read as strikingly prescient.
On whether Putin is a "tough guy"
Interviewer Mumin Shakirov asked whether Nemtsov was worried about underestimating Putin. Wasn't Nemtsov worried he might turn out to be a tough guy? Nemtsov apparently couldn't resist a cheeky response:
No. You need balls to be a tough guy.
On whether Ukraine would come under greater Russian influence
Nemtsov managed to foreshadow the current Ukraine conflict with remarkable accuracy. Russia, he said, should not make the mistake of assuming that Ukraine wanted to give up its independence: even the supporters of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych would not want their country's interests subsumed under Russia's.
That, of course, is more or less what happened: After Yanukovych was toppled by protesters, Russia easily annexed Crimea in early 2014, then continued its military adventure by backing the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine, only to find itself still bogged down in the conflict a year later.
Ukraine does not want to become part of Putin's Russia. For them sovereignty and independence are unshakeable values. They believe that Moscow has been hanging over them ever since Bohdan Khmelnitsky's times [in the 17th century], that Kyiv is now free at last and this value is beyond dispute.... Yanukovych relies on the support of the very specific Donetsk or Eastern clan, on businessmen of Rinat Akhmetov's ilk, and he also has the support of some of the Kiev oligarchs, such as Igor Kolomoysky. But these guys don't want to be absorbed into Russia, they don't want competition from our oligarchs.
On the risk that low oil prices might threaten Putin's power
Putin, Nemtsov said, should worry about the stability of his regime if oil prices fall, taking the Russian economy down with them. Oil prices are not down to the levels of the late nineties — right now they're hovering around $50 to $60 per barrel — but falling oil prices have caused the ruble to plummet in recent months, and sent Russia's economy into turmoil.
The parallel simply suggests itself. For many years Egypt was ruled by the dictator and corrupt thief Mubarak. What is the difference between him and Putin? None! Except that one of them is 80 and the other nearly 60. That's the only difference! Our man simply has luck on his side. I keep repeating this, but it's important. Oil is at nearly 100 US dollars per barrel but if it goes down to 10 dollars as it did twelve years ago, I can guarantee that within days the centre of Moscow would turn into Cairo. That is why we don't want a revolution, we want peace and what we are saying is: "Putin, retire!"
As of yet, though, Russia's economic woes don't seem to have affected Putin's popularity — Nemtsov's predicted Tahrir-square-style revolution in Moscow has not come to pass.
Of course, Nemtsov's predictions weren't always so good
Here he was in 2000, a week after Russian President Boris Yeltsin left office, writing an Op-Ed in the New York Times about why "Russia's best bet" was a relatively unknown former intelligence officer named Vladimir Putin who had just replaced Yeltsin. Even then, however, Nemtsov was realistic about what kind of leader Putin would turn out to be:
Some critics have questioned Mr. Putin's commitment to democracy. True, he is no liberal democrat, domestically or internationally. Under his leadership Russia will not become France. The government will, however, reflect the Russian people's desire for a strong state, a functioning economy, and an end to tolerance for robber barons -- in short, a ''ruble stops here'' attitude. Russia could do considerably worse than have a leader with an unwavering commitment to the national interest.