Boris Nemtsov murder: Russia has lost an opposition leader of substance

There were several familiar faces missing at the head of the mass protest march in Moscow on Sunday 1 March, when more than 50,000 people took to the streets to demonstrate against Russian actions in Ukraine and to highlight discontent with the worsening economic crisis in the country. 

The anti-corruption activist and serial blogger Alexei Navalny was serving a 15-day prison sentence for distributing fliers at a metro station in contravention of the terms of his indefinite house arrest. The leader of the socialist Left Front, Sergei Udaltsov, was presumably at his apartment, his electronic tag preventing him from breaking the terms of his own house arrest. 

Most significantly, however, Boris Nemtsov was not in his usual place in the front row. Instead, many of the protesters carried his portrait aloft in tribute following his murder in the shadow of the Kremlin’s walls on Friday 27 February. The protest march effectively became an emotional farewell to the de facto leader of Russia’s political opposition.

Boris Nemtsov emerged as a politician of some substance in Russia’s first turbulent decade after the collapse of communism. He quickly developed a reputation as a young, energetic and innovative economic reformer after being appointed by Yeltsin to the post of governor of Nizhny Novgorod in 1991. In 1997, he served as Yeltsin’s deputy prime minister in charge of the energy sector. During Putin’s first presidential term, Nemtsov was one of the co-leaders of the Union of Right Forces, an economic-liberal party which briefly enjoyed cordial relations with the administration. Once the party began to voice criticism of the regime, however, it came under increasing pressure and was eventually forced to disband in 2008. From that moment, Nemtsov took up a position of outright opposition to the Putin regime, first helping to found the Solidarity social movement in 2008 and then, along with former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, the Party of People’s Freedom in 2010.  

More recently, Nemtsov was in the process of preparing a report that he hinted would expose the Kremlin’s long-term strategy to destabilise Ukraine. In his capacity as deputy in the Yaroslavl regional parliament, Nemtsov was also campaigning against corruption in both local and national government. 

Since his murder, Russian social media has been awash with speculation and conspiracy theories as to who were the perpetrators. It may well be far-fetched to point the finger at the Kremlin, and it should be noted that Nemtsov did not pose a threat to the president, whose popularity ratings have soared since the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine. There can, however, be little doubt that the virulent nationalist, anti-Western fervour whipped up by the Putin regime, in which opposition figures such as Nemtsov have been portrayed as traitorous fifth-columnists doing the West’s bidding, helped to create a political climate in which such a shocking event was increasingly likely to occur.

Whether Nemtsov’s murder will help galvanise Russian political opposition is questionable. The understandably emotional response to his killing did, in all probability, double the numbers participating in Sunday’s march. The key challenge for Russia’s broad opposition movement is to maintain consistently high levels of protest by mobilising passive opponents of the regime – not just as a response to specific events and outside of election periods. 

Increased regime repression, however, clearly raises the costs of protest. As one activist told me: ‘We need more at the protests, but people are really afraid. We say come along – the more there are, the bigger the rally and the safer you will be. But they are still afraid.’ When an opposition politician of Nemtsov’s standing is not safe, then it is understandable that ordinary citizens will be in fear of active participation.

Moreover, in Boris Nemtsov, the Russian political opposition has lost a leader who had been able to preside over a lengthy period of unity among previously fractious forces. It is difficult to imagine the opposition movement without him at its centre.   

Dr David White, Lecturer in Politics, University of Birmingham