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The terrifying politics of Boris Nemtsov's murder

Slain Russian opposition activist Boris Nemtsov
Slain Russian opposition activist Boris Nemtsov
(Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov last Friday night in Moscow has sent shockwaves through Russia and around the world. The location of the killing, within sight of the Kremlin, seemed designed to send a political message. And yet Nemtsov was in some ways an odd target for a political murder: although he was a well-known opposition figure, he was not widely popular among Russians, and seemed to pose little threat to Vladimir Putin's regime. And even with Russia's recent crackdown on dissent, no major political figure has been murdered there in more than a decade.

For now, Nemtsov's death remains a mystery. But behind all the speculation, there is a greater fear that is expressed in nearly every plausible theory about why and by whom he was killed.

Could his murder be a sign — the latest in a series of signs — that Putin's regime, in a desperate effort to hang on to power despite the country's economic crisis, has unleashed forces it cannot control?

Nemtsov's murder has crossed a new line in political violence in modern Russia

Marchers carry a banner reading, "Boris Nemtsov, don't forget, don't forgive" at a rally in St. Petersburg commemorating Nemtsov's death. (OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty

Nemtsov's death suggests that something about Russia's political reality has changed. It's not yet clear what that change might be — but its consequences are likely to go well beyond even this episode.

Although Putin's Russia has been worsening its crackdown on dissent in recent years, Nemtsov's murder still came as a surprise. Russian journalists and human rights activists have been killed because of their work in recent years, but someone of Nemtsov's prominence would have seemed off-limits.

Even Nemtsov himself appears to have been reassured by his position: although he told friends that he was fearful because of threats he received, he said that he believed that he was safe because he was a former member of the Russian government. "One time the power will change hands in Russia again," the New York Times reports he told a friend, "and those who served Putin wouldn’t want to create this precedent."

Nemtsov might have expected his lack of power or popularity to protect him as well. He's been a prominent Putin critic for years, but was not particularly popular among Russians, who associated him with the disastrous economic chaos of President Boris Yeltsin's tenure.

Other opposition leaders, such as the young and charismatic Alexei Navalny, boast a greater following, which has come with greater risk — Navalny is currently under house arrest, and his brother was recently sentenced to prison, a punishment widely seen as political retaliation for Navalny's role as an opposition activist. Nemtsov, meanwhile, had spent the last few years doing the plodding work of political opposition: writing reports, organizing rallies, and giving interviews to Western journalists, but there did not seem to be much chance he could actually threaten Putin. He should, therefore, have been in a relatively safe position.

And yet last Friday night, someone drove up behind him on a Moscow bridge and shot him four times in the back.

Is Nemtsov's murder a sign of more chaos to come?

Anti-maidan rally

Alexander Zaldostanov, the leader of the Night Wolves biker gang, attends an anti-Maidan rally in Moscow on February 21. (Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

We do not yet know who was responsible for Nemtsov's death, or what his killers' motivation was. But the most plausible theories all have the same frightening idea at their core: that the nationalist fervor Putin has relied upon to preserve his own power has become a force beyond his control. In this view, Nemtsov's murder would likely be a sign of much worse to come.

Many observers inside and outside of Russia have suggested that Nemtsov may have been murdered by nationalist hardliners who were angry about his public opposition Russia's occupation of Crimea and its role in the eastern Ukraine conflict.

Nemtsov had been working on a report about Russia's involvement in Ukraine, and was scheduled to lead a march protesting the war on March 1, two days after he was killed. Human Rights Watch researcher Tanya Cooper told me that Nemtsov had frequently been featured on lists of "traitors" or "enemies of Russia" circulated by Russian nationalist activists.

For much of the last year, Cooper explained, Putin has pushed a nationalist narrative that asserts that people ascribing to "western values" — a broad category that ranges from human rights activists to LGBT individuals — are a "fifth column" of traitorous enemies of Russia. The result, NYU professor Mark Galeotti wrote in an article for Read Russia, is a toxic environment that "empowers and encourages the self-proclaimed 'patriots' to take matters into their own hands."

Putin has relied on that kind of nationalist fervor to maintain his popularity despite Russia's faltering economy. In the years before the economy slumped, Putin governed through an implicit deal with the Russian people: he delivered high economic growth, and Russians accepted curbs to political and individual rights. But when the economy began to falter, he changed tactics, focusing instead on stirring up old-school anti-Western paranoia and imperial-style Russian nationalism.

That has included support for the anti-Maidan movement, a nationalist "social movement" that claims its mission is to prevent a Ukrainian-style revolution — or, as they might put it, a coup by western-backed traitors — from occurring in Russia. Prominent anti-Maidan figures include Alexander Zaldostanov, a biker gang leader who was once awarded a medal by Putin.

At an anti-Maidan rally in Moscow a week before Nemtsov’s death, people carried signs saying "let’s destroy the fifth column," and called for participants to "take care of the liberals," former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov told the Financial Times.

This potent nationalism could have consequences beyond even Putin's intentions. Alexander Verkhovsky of Russia's Sova Center, a nonprofit that studies nationalism and racism in Russia, told me in an interview that it would be shocking if a group with any kind of public presence was responsible for this act, because a political murder of this nature represented a kind of red line — an act so extreme that even hardline nationalists who publicly embraced extremist rhetoric, or members of established criminal networks, would normally not be willing to cross it. If that line has been crossed here, it could be a sign that the nationalism that Putin has stirred up to maintain his popularity is growing beyond his control.

If ultranationalists did indeed murder Nemtsov, that suggests they no longer feel restricted by the rules that place political killings out of bounds. If so, then, in the words of human rights activist Lev Ponomarev, "In this atmosphere of violence and hate, these killings will only continue."

Why the seriousness of the investigation will be an important signal to watch

Putin

(Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

President Putin speaks to the board of the Russian Interior Ministry on March 4th. He called political murders like that of Nemtsov "disgraceful." (Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

If that theory is correct — if Nemtsov's killers were extremists who believed that they were protecting Russia from his fifth-column treachery — then the real question is whether the Kremlin will take action against the perpetrators. If it does, then that will be a sign that Putin still has at least some control over the militant nationalism that he has encouraged, and will take steps to ensure it does not exceed certain boundaries. But if the case goes un-investigated and un-prosecuted, then that is a sign that the Kremlin is unwilling — or unable — to impose those kinds of limits. That could be a worrying sign that there may be even more violence to come.

There is at least one early sign that the investigation is being taken seriously: the case has reportedly been assigned to General Igor Krasnov, an investigator who is known for his aggressive, successful prosecution of right-wing extremists for a previous political murder: the assassination of Russian human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova. Markelov and Baburova were killed by members of a group called BORN, a Russian acronym that stands for "the militant organization of Russian nationalists." They targeted Markelov for his anti-fascist legal work. (Baburova, who was killed alongside Markelov, was not the attack's intended target.)

Krasnov's appointment as head of the Nemtsov investigation could be a signal that the government believes that ultranationalist extremists were responsible for Nemtsov's murder, and wants to send a message that they are vigorously pursuing the case. However, as Verkhovsky of the Sova Center noted, this case doesn't just depend on the skill and dedication of its investigators.

The BORN killers' connections to the administration were indirect at best, which meant that it was not "politically dangerous" for Krasnov to investigate and prosecute the case. Without knowing if Nemtsov's killers have political connections to the security services or to the administration, he said, it is impossible to know what will happen in this new case. If Nemtsov's murder is not prosecuted, then that may be seen as a signal that the killers had the support of someone within the government. That is deeply worrying, because it could send a signal that the Putin regime approves of such murders, and thus inspire more of them.

That would of course be tragic. But it could also be a sign of weakness in Putin's regime. After all, why suddenly become tolerant of this kind of political violence, if it has not happened in years? That would be a sign that either Putin's administration suddenly found Nemtsov threatening and authorized his killing — which seems unlikely at this stage — or that it was not willing to confront the nationalists who took the "fifth column" rhetoric at face value. In either case, that would suggest that Nemtsov's killing is a result of weakness and insecurity within Putin's regime. But the latter possibility is in many ways more frightening.

That would represent a retreat from Putin's recent attempts to keep control over the growing ultranationalist movement. The Interpreter pointed out in a recent article that Putin ensured the arrest of far-right leader Aleksandr Potkin on charges of extremism; "sanctioned" the interrogation and threatened prosecution of Yegor Prosvirnin, the editor of popular ultranationalist website Sputnik & Pogrom; and has banned a number of extreme-right groups and fanatical ultra-orthodox sects.

If Putin's administration does fail to push forward with the investigation into Nemtsov's death, then that could suggest that the nationalism that Putin fomented to support his own power is now becoming more powerful than he is. If that's right — if Putin has become too reliant on nationalist populism to keep control of its consequences— then it is frightening to imagine what might follow in Russia.