While the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to come under fire from European and American officials for their unacknowledged support of the rebels battling the Ukrainian government in Donbass, assassinations and accusations against other opposition leaders have begun to attract significant amounts of media attention inside Russia.
On Friday, former Deputy Prime Minister and notable opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead following an anti-war gathering of Russians opposed to the ongoing war in Ukraine. Reports indicate that he was shot five to eight times in the chest from a vehicle that had approach him as he walked home and crossed a bridge in Moscow. Al Jazeera reports:
Nemtsov, 55, was a sharp critic of President Vladimir Putin, assailing the government’s inefficiency, rampant corruption and the Kremlin’s policy on Ukraine, which has strained Russia-West ties to a degree unseen since Cold War times. His death comes just a day before a planned protest against Putin’s rule.
Russia’s Investigative Committee confirmed the death, saying it had opened a criminal probe. (Al Jazeera, February 27)
Nemtsov’s murder is the latest in a long list of untimely deaths of Russian opposition voices. Throughout the presidency of Putin (as well as his term as prime minister under Dmitry Medvedev from 2008-2012), journalists and opposition leaders have repeatedly been targeted for assassination and imprisonment by the Russian government. This extends even to Russians and European government officials in other countries. The reach of the Kremlin has even allegedly reached London. On November 1, 2006, former Russian FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko fell ill and died after being poisoned with Polonium-210. He died 22 days later. It remains widely suspected that agents working on behalf of the Russian government poisoned Litvinenko after he accused the Putin regime of murdering journalists and staging the bombing of Russian buildings that were blamed on Chechen separatists.
Litvinenko had been arrested in 1998 after he and other FSB officers made public statements indicting their superiors as ordering the assassination of Russian businessman and oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky himself later resigned his position in the Russian parliament (Duma) and relocated to Great Britain where he continued to accuse the Russian government of being behind attacks on apartment buildings in Russian cities in 1999 that effectively acted as the catalyst for launching Russian military action and the renewed war in Chechnya. He was found dead of hanging in March 2013. While no evidence of a violent struggle was found, the characterization of Berezovsky’s death remains an “open verdict” after re-examination by a coroner.
In the last year, other Russians standing in opposition to the Putin government have been similarly targeted for imprisonment. Aleksei Navalny, a former lawyer and critic of Russian political corruption, has become a leader in the Russian opposition movement in recent years. In many ways, Navalny is now representative of the dissident movement that stands opposed to the continued rule of President Putin. After emerging in 2011 as a public voice opposing corruption in the Putin government, Navalny has used his website to speak out against the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, organize political gatherings, and rally Russians against the ruling regime in Moscow.
In December, Navalny escaped a prison sentence after being convicted of criminal charges related to fraud. However, in the hours following the adjudication of his sentence, Navalny left his house arrest to join in a protest against the Putin government. Seemingly in response, the government imprisoned Aleksei’s younger brother, Oleg:
Hours after being spared prison on Tuesday in a criminal fraud trial widely viewed as political revenge, the Kremlin’s chief antagonist, Aleksei A. Navalny, broke out of house arrest and tried to join an unsanctioned antigovernment rally, daring the authorities to throw him in jail.
They refrained, but in a twist that clearly caught Mr. Navalny, the normally unruffled political opposition leader off guard, the court ordered that his younger brother, Oleg, who was also charged in the fraud case, serve three and half years in prison. (David M. Herszenhorn, the New York Times, December 30, 2014)
The 38 year old Navalny has endured years of harassment by Russian authorities as he has repeatedly positioned himself at the center of the opposition movement. As an activist and Deputy Chief of Russian political party Yabloko, Navalny participated in a 2006 “Russian March” which had decidedly ethnically divisive and extreme nationalist overtones. Since 2006, Navalny has been arrested numerous times for protesting Russian government and policy, including his most recent trial on fraud charges.
In 2011, Navalny was arrested with 300 others for protesting fraud in Moscow. He was sentenced to 15 days in jail. In 2013, Navalny challenged the Kremlin-backed mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin in the mayoral election. Navalny, running supported by the Republican Party of Russia-People’s Freedom Party (RPR-PARNAS), a party previously ordered dissolved by the Russian Supreme Court but reinstated after the European Court on Human Rights ruled that a denial of the party’s registration was unlawful. The party was led by Nemtsov until his assassination on Friday. The RPR-PARNAS is a liberal democratic party and its platform is essentially support for Russian human rights and federalism. With a voter turnout of just 33.23%, Navalny finished second, garnering 27.1% of the vote. Navalny became a symbol of dissent against the regime:
A trenchant critic of Russia’s rampant corruption, Mr. Navalny became a hero to the tens of thousands of Muscovites who took to the streets to protest vote rigging in parliamentary elections in 2011. Mr. Navalny, whose politics combine liberalism with an earthy nationalism, refused to back down when Vladimir V. Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 determined to suppress the incipient democracy movement and reduce individual and news media freedoms.
Over the last two years, the government has harassed him, filing corruption charges in several cases, none of them justified, independent legal analysts said. But the Kremlin has been leery of treating him too harshly, wary of provoking a backlash.
Navalny himself is an interesting case in Russian opposition. In some ways represents a disturbing trend towards a different kind of nationalism in Russia. His politics are often characterized as extreme nationalist. Aside from his participation in the extreme nationalist 2006 Russian March, Navalny has made statements about citizens in the Caucasus that have been described as racist. He is a member of the “Stop Feeding the Caucasus” political campaign. This highlights a disturbing counterpoint to the nationalism represented by the government of President Putin. Specifically on the issue of the Russian government’s handling of the problems in the Caucasus, Navalny has found himself criticized as well:
So far, there has been little novelty in Navalny’s approach to the problems of the North Caucasus, which comes down to supporting the catchy slogan “Stop Feeding the Caucasus!” (http://navalny.livejournal.com/627082.html). Essentially, this slogan means that Russians do not want to have anything to do with the North Caucasus. Although many Russians still think that Moscow should exercise political control over the region without financially subsidizing it, such control might also be costly and unsustainable. The North Caucasus’ financial dependence on Moscow is the flip side of Moscow’s struggles to retain control over this region. Changing this relationship would be hard for any Russian leader, but its viability is also constantly called into question. (Valery Dzutsev, The Jamestown Foundation, March 13, 2013)
The murder of Nemtsov is representative of a long established pattern of dissident voices in both political and journalistic circles in Russia being silenced just prior to releasing information or presenting a legitimate threat to to the government of President Vladimir Putin. As the movement begins to recover from the loss of Nemtsov, questions about who will replace him as the defacto leader of critics of the Putin regime.
Navalny’s affiliations and his strident nationalism, even if tempered by his support for liberalized democracy and capitalism, make for an interesting countervailing narrative to the nationalism represented by the Putin regime. As the fallout of Nemtsov’s murder subsides and new leaders assert themselves at the center of opposition circles, Navalny’s brand of nationalism may find appeal among a broader base of the Russian population. Whether that appeal amounts to a more dangerous threat to the Russian state in the form of ultra-nationalist fervor is a notion that will be watched closely by the Putin regime and abroad.