Putin’s foes have an uncanny habit of ending up dead

Since Boris Nemtsov was murdered late last Friday night, the Kremlin has floated numerous explanations for his death. President Vladimir Putin has called his killing a “provocation”. It’s a strange word. What Putin means is that whoever murdered Nemtsov did so to discredit the state. If the state is the primary victim here, the state can’t be responsible, this logic runs.

Others have blamed Islamist extremists. Or Ukrainian fascists. Putin’s ally Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s thuggish president, has accused Western spy agencies – an old favourite. The muckraking website lifenews.ru, which has close links to the Federal Security Service (FSB), Putin’s former spy agency, has pointed a finger at Nemtsov’s colourful love life. At the time of his murder, he was walking past the Kremlin with a Ukrainian model, it noted.

The only explanation not being given in Moscow for Nemtsov’s killing is the blindingly obvious one: that he was murdered for his opposition activities. Specifically, for his very public criticism of Putin’s secret war in Ukraine in which at least 6 000 people have been killed over the past year, and which – according to his friends – he had been about to expose.

Nemtsov had been one of few Russian liberals brave enough to denounce Putin’s extensive undercover military support for the separatist rebels in Ukraine. He described the way Putin had annexed Crimea, using masked special forces, as illegal, though he recognised that most Crimeans wanted to join Russia. In his final interview on Friday, he denounced Russia’s president as a “pathological liar”.

In the interview with the liberal radio station Echo of Moscow, Nemtsov seemed in good spirits. He was in waspish form. He attacked the Kremlin’s “dead-end” politics and mishandling of the economy. Nemtsov’s criticism of the Russian state was long-standing. Since being forced out of Russian parliamentary politics a decade ago, he had founded several anti-Putin movements. With state media under the Kremlin’s thumb, though, Nemtsov was banned from television. He was on the margins.

Wave of nationalist hysteria
What changed was the war in Ukraine and the unleashing of a wave of nationalist hysteria and hatred on Russia federal television channels. In the wake of his murder, NTV quietly shelved an anti-Nemtsov hatchet job, titled Anatomy of a Protest, which was due to be screened on Sunday night.

By 2015, most other Russian opposition leaders were in exile (such as former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and former chess champion Garry Kasparov) or in jail (including anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny).

All of this made Nemtsov especially vulnerable. Hours before his murder, moreover, Nemtsov said he had documentary proof that undercover Russian soldiers were fighting and dying in eastern Ukraine. It was an assertion borne out by a steady flow of coffins returning in the dead of night from the war zone in Donetsk and Luhansk. According to his friend Ilya Yashin, Nemtsov was preparing an explosive essay on the subject.

Nemtsov had written dissenting pamphlets before. One of them, Putin: A Reckoning, accused Russia’s president and his circle of massive personal corruption.

Another targeted Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow’s former mayor, who was later toppled. But this new one went to the heart of the Kremlin’s big lie. At the weekend, police seized Nemtsov’s hard drives. There seems little prospect his last polemic will now ever be published.

Instead, the Kremlin seems to be moving towards an old-fashioned cover-up. On Monday, the authorities implausibly announced that the CCTV cameras next to the spot where Nemtsov was shot dead “were not working”.

The politician had had a late dinner with his girlfriend, Ukrainian Anna Duritskaya, at an upmarket shopping centre. They strolled together across the cobbles of Red Square, then walked past the Kremlin. They started crossing a bridge over the Moscow River. It was 11.30pm.

According to Duritskaya, someone emerged from a stairwell behind them. The assassin shot Nemtsov six times in the back. Four of the bullets struck him, one in the heart. He died instantly. The killer escaped in a white car, driven by an accomplice. Investigators recovered 9mm bullets.

The location told its own chilling story: an opponent of Putin lying dead in the street, under the walls of Russian power and next to the famous landmark, St Basil’s Cathedral. It seems extraordinary that a former deputy prime minister could be murdered here, outside the Russian equivalent of the White House or the Houses of Parliament, with the shooter apparently able to drive off.

Lost track
Officials have released one carefully curated CCTV shot taken from far away. A snowplough obscures the moment when Nemtsov is shot. Like all major opposition figures, Nemtsov was under surveillance by the FSB. It expends enormous effort on keeping track of its targets. On this occasion it seems to have lost track of him.

In recent months, Nemtsov had voiced growing fears that he might be killed. In an interview with the Financial Times on the Monday before his death, he said Putin was capable of murder: “He is a totally amoral human being. Totally amoral. He is a leviathan.” Nemtsov went on: “Putin is very dangerous. He is more dangerous than the Soviets were. In the Soviet Union, there was at least a system and decisions were taken by the Politburo. Decisions about war, decisions to kill people, were not taken by [Leonid] Brezhnev alone or by [Yuri] Andropov either, but that’s how it works now.”

We will probably never know who killed Boris Nemtsov. The Kremlin says it’s not to blame. Despite this denial, it’s entirely possible the state ordered Nemtsov’s appalling murder; it’s equally possible that nationalist forces decided to kill someone routinely derided as an American spy. As many of Nemtsov’s friends have pointed out, Putin fostered the atmosphere of hysteria and hatred. It is this that allowed Nemtsov to be killed. So the moral responsibility rests with him, they say.

Putin’s comment that he is taking the investigation under his personal control doesn’t inspire confidence. Rather, the Kremlin’s actions suggest that the goal now is to confuse the Russian public. The numerous versions of Nemtsov’s murder – from love tiff to Charlie Hebdo-inspired Islamists to provocation – are part of a sophisticated media strategy.

The aim is to blur what is true with what is not, to the point that the truth disappears. Russia Today, the Kremlin propaganda channel, uses the same methods for Western audiences. Its boss, Margarita Simonyan, argues that there is no such thing as truth, merely narrative. In this cynical, relativist world of swirling, competing versions, nothing is really true. And yet someone shot and killed Boris Nemtsov. He was alive. Now he is dead.

Such methods have been used in previous cases where enemies of the Russian state have mysteriously wound up dead. It’s a long list. In October 2006, a gunman murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya in the stairwell of her Moscow apartment building. In the wake of her killing, Putin dismissed her as “insignificant” inside Russia and “merely famous in the West”. Last Friday, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press spokesperson, suggested similarly that Nemtsov was a marginal figure, “scarcely more important than your average citizen”.

Three weeks after Politkovskaya’s murder, two assassins bumped off Alexander Litvinenko, another well-known critic of Putin’s. Last month, a public inquiry into Litvinenko’s 2006 murder opened in the high court in London. The British police were able to obtain a mountain of evidence: CCTV footage showing Litvinenko at the Mayfair murder scene; call records from the two suspects, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun; and witnesses who were in a hotel bar when Litvinenko swallowed half a cup of radioactive green tea.

The inquiry chairperson, Sir Robert Owen, has already indicated that there is a “prima facie case” that this is a Russian state killing. The evidence backs up this interpretation. Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium-210, a rare isotope typically made by a nuclear reactor. Once identified, it is easy to trace. Scotland Yard found a trail of polonium that led from Moscow to London: on plane seats, in hotel rooms and on the shisha pipe that Lugovoi smoked in a Moroccan bar.

As with Nemtsov, Putin has denied involvement. In the meantime, Lugovoi has prospered. He became a deputy in Russia’s State Duma for an ultra-nationalist party. He has produced his own versions of Litvinenko’s killing, blaming it on MI6, Tony Blair and the late oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Over the weekend, he popped up on Russia’s state Rossiya television channel to share his theories on Nemtsov’s death.

Documenting human rights abuses
During my four years in Russia as the Guardian‘s bureau chief I covered other similar killings. Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer, was shot dead in 2009 close to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Murdered with him was Anastasia Baburova, a 25-year-old journalist with the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta. By the time I got to the scene, Markelov’s body had been removed. Vermilion splashes of blood were visible on the white snow. There were few clues. Two neo-Nazis were convicted of their murders.

At the trial of a group of Chechens accused of Politkovskaya’s murder I met Natalia Estemirova, a friend of the murdered journalist, who worked for the human rights organisation Memorial. Estemirova lived in Grozny, Chechnya, and documented human rights abuses by Islamist rebels and security forces under the command of Ramzan Kadyrov. In the summer of 2009, gunmen abducted her from her home and drove her to the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia. They marched her off the road into a wood. And shot her five times in the head and chest.

Estemirova’s killers have never been caught. Several Chechens were convicted of Politkovskaya’s murder. But the person who organised the hit was never captured and no plausible motive for her murder was ever given. In the absence of dispassionate investigation, proper legal process or even official regret, the suspicion of state complicity remains. What one can say with certainty is that troublesome critics of the Kremlin have an uncanny habit in Putin’s Russia of ending up dead.

Then there is Sergei Magnitsky. Magnitsky was a Russian lawyer who uncovered a $280-million fraud by interior minister officials and a Moscow tax office. These same officials put Magnitsky in jail. They demanded he withdraw his testimony against them. He refused. They denied him access to a doctor; he grew seriously ill. In November 2009, riot police burst into his cell and beat him to death. The Kremlin subsequently put Magnitsky on trial, even though he was dead, after Western countries sanctioned the corrupt officials involved.

On Sunday, tens of thousands of mourners filed past the spot where Nemtsov was gunned down. Some held banners that read: “Je suis Nemtsov“; others carried placards naming the “four bullets” that cut him down as Russia’s four state television channels. I asked a Russian friend who she thought was responsible for Nemtsov’s death. Her reply was simple and sad. “Leviathan killed him,” she said. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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