What had been planned as a protest Sunday against President Vladimir Putin’s government became instead a somber march in memory of an opposition leader who was shot and killed just steps from the Kremlin.
Boris Nemtsov was a free speech advocate and critic of President Putin. He was shot four times in the back Friday night by assassins as he walked across a bridge over the Moskva River.
President Putin condemned Nemtsov’s killing. In a message to Nemtsov’s mother, he vowed to catch those responsible.
But the dissident’s supporters said he was killed because he spoke out against corruption, authoritarianism, and Russia’s role in Ukraine.
Nemtsov, 55, was a former deputy prime minister under reformist President Boris Yeltsin in 1997 and 1998. Putin took over from Yeltsin in 1999. Since then, Nemtsov has been a leading critic of the government.
In the weeks before his murder, Nemtsov was preparing documents exposing Russian military involvement in Ukraine, the BBC said.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said: “Boris had declared he would provide clear evidence of Russian armed forces’ participation in [the war] in Ukraine. Somebody was afraid of this… They killed him.”
Nemtsov and his girlfriend Anna Duritskaya had been at a restaurant Friday night. “They left together to walk to his flat, crossing the bridge, where a white car drew up and Mr Nemtsov was shot four times with a pistol at around 23:40 pm,” the BBC said. Duritskaya wasn’t injured.
In recent years, Nemtsov had taken a back seat to anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, who became the chief opposition figure after leading mass protests three years ago in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Navalny is serving a 15-day jail sentence. He was arrested last month for handing out leaflets in the Moscow subway promoting the March 1 demonstration. Nemtsov was planning to be at Sunday’s event in Navalny’s place.
Putin’s popularity has hit new highs. Nationalist feelings have risen amid the Ukraine conflict, economic sanctions by Western countries, falling oil prices and a crashing Ruble.
Most of Putin’s prominent critics are now dead or have left Russia.
Garry Kasparov fled Russia in 2013, fearing prosecution. The former world chess champion had co-founded a pro-democracy party and spoke at anti-Putin rallies. He blamed followers of Putin for Nemtsov’s murder.
“In Putin’s atmosphere of hatred and violence, abroad and in Russia, bloodshed is the prerequisite to show loyalty, that you are on the team,” Kasparov said on Twitter Saturday.
Former Yukos oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky lives in Switzerland. He was held in prison for ten years until 2013. Before being jailed for fraud, he had spoken out against Putin and threatened to fund the opposition.
Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist and Putin critic, was murdered outside her Moscow apartment on Putin’s birthday in 2006. The killing is unsolved.
In an interview last month with the online Russian-language news outlet Sobesednik, Nemtsov said his mother was worried he might be killed for his opposition politics.
Nemtsov said he was worried too. But not as much as his mother.
Richard L. Cassin is the publisher and editor of the FCPA Blog. He can be contacted here.