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The Week In Russia: Boris Nemtsov And The Russia That Might Have Been


Opposition supporters marched in memory of murdered Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov in central Moscow on February 24.

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Thousands of people in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities honored the memory of slain Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, and in doing so mourned the loss of a Russia that might have been. Meanwhile, in the Russia that is what it is, state TV elaborated on President Vladimir Putin's saber-rattling warning to the West about missiles.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Four Years Later

For days, weeks, and months at a time, the discourse on Russia is often dominated by one person: President Vladimir Putin. In February alone, there was -- among other Putin-centric phenomena – the president’s annual state-of-the-nation speech and an article by a Kremlin aide who predicts Russia will be “Putin’s state” for a century to come.

This past week provided a bit of a respite, with the focus shifting -- at least for some -- to one of the most prominent victims of Putin’s Russia: Boris Nemtsov.

Thousands of people marched in cities across Russia on February 24 to honor the memory of Nemtsov, a vocal Putin critic who was shot dead on a bridge near the Kremlin four years ago. The crowd swelled above 10,000 in Moscow, where many also gathered at a makeshift memorial at the scene of the crime at 11:31 p.m. on February 27.

On posters and in words, many marchers had something to say about Russia under Putin, some chanting slogans against the president and others accusing him of running what rights activist Lev Ponomaryov likened to a “totalitarian regime, with torture and murders” that are not solved or, in some cases, even investigated.

They were not just paying tribute to Nemtsov – they were mourning the loss of a Russia that might have been.

In news stories, Nemtsov is often described simply as “former deputy prime minister.”

Fallen 'Star'

That’s accurate: It’s a post he held for about 17 months, and the highest one he reached in the federal government – though he made his name as governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region in 1991-97. But for anyone who remembers Russia in those days, it falls far short of describing a politician who, had things gone differently, might possibly have become president.

“In the 1990s he was a star,” was how BuzzFeed’s Miriam Elder put it in a story written hours after his killing. “One of the youngest mayors of post-Soviet Russia, he managed to turn Nizhny Novgorod, one of Russia's biggest cities, into a place where the factories ran, the paychecks cleared, and the economy grew despite the poverty and chaos engulfing the country.

“He was that rare thing in those days -- a popular politician,” she wrote.

In two decades, Nemtsov has gone from star to symbol, for some, of what is wrong with Russia under Putin. Along the way, he did his best to point some of the biggest problems out – until he was killed.

Nemtsov was a frequent and fiery speaker at the Bolotnaya protests of 2011-12, leading chants of “Putin’s a thief” at the rallies that erupted after the then-prime minister revealed plans to return to the presidency and the ruling United Russia party won parliamentary elections marred by evidence of widespread fraud.

He also issued a series of reports alleging high-level corruption and portraying Putin and his circle as a voracious bunch intent on staying in power to protect their extravagant wealth.

A report issued in August 2012, a few months into Putin’s third term, countered the president’s portrayal of himself as a “humble servant” of the Russian people who labors like a “galley slave” to improve their lot and keep them safe.

Instead, it described him as a man with wristwatches worth a combined $700,000, a presidential jet with a $75,000 toilet, and access to a fleet of yachts in which the one with a spa pool, waterfall, and wine cellar rated only second-best.

But that report did not make much of a splash. And when Nemtsov was killed, many wondered why, considering that few Russians would have considered him to pose an imminent threat to Putin’s power: He had been out of the government and parliament for years, a prominent victim of what Kremlin critics say was a persistent drive to push liberal opponents to the margins. Plus, in the constellation of the Russian opposition, he had been eclipsed by Aleksei Navalny.

Whodunit?

One fact that attracted attention, though, was that at the time of his assassination, Nemtsov had been drafting a report on Putin’s alleged involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine – where Russia-backed separatists had pushed ahead with a deadly offensive near the town of Debaltseve two weeks earlier, even as Moscow was negotiating the still largely unimplemented cease-fire and political settlement deal known as Minsk 2.

Whether that report was a factor is unclear. One thing that is clear, according to relatives, colleagues, and Western governments, is that the convictions handed down to five men from Chechnya in 2017 for his murder fell far short of solving the crime.

As with previous high-profile killings of Kremlin critics -- including the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 -- government critics have voiced suspicion that the culprits will never face justice because an honest investigation could lead to figures who are close to Moscow-backed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov or to Putin's inner circle.

“We’ll repeat it for a fifth year: Nemtsov’s murder is a political killing, and Putin bears responsibility,” said Grigory Yavlinsky, another liberal politician who served in the government and in parliament but has long since been sidelined, though less dramatically.

“The person who actually ordered it has still not been found. This is all undoubted evidence of the authoritarian-criminal powers that be in this country. The Nemtsov March shows that hundreds of thousands of Russians see it this way,” Yavlinsky tweeted from the February 24 demonstration in Moscow.

Russia Without Putin?

He may have been exaggerating attendance, and in any case crowds of 10,000 in Moscow and smaller gatherings elsewhere are not necessarily a sign of severe pressure on the Kremlin – as the fact that Putin weathered the protests of 2011-12, which at times drew 100,00 or more, seems to show.

But Putin has gotten a slew of bad news from opinion polls in recent months that have taken some of the Teflon off. Most notable, maybe, was the late January survey showing that for the first time since 2006, more Russians believe the country is on the wrong path than the right one.

Trying to guess what Russia might look like had someone like Nemtsov come to power may be a fool’s game. But it seems even more foolish to think that history had to happen the way it did – that, as then-Deputy Chief of Staff Vyacheslav Volodin told international Russia experts in October 2014, “there is no Russia today if there is no Putin.”

Or, for that matter, that the first decade of Putin’s rule was a “miracle of god,” as Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, said in 2012.

Or, as Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov wrote in a newspaper article last month, that Russia will be “Putin’s state” long, long after he is no longer president.

But it’s Putin’s state for now, and the state TV channels – the first thing he moved to corral when he came to power -- are Putin’s state TV.

Count 'Em

A good example of the way Putin uses those channels to try to hammer messages home, to audiences inside and outside Russia, played out after the February 20 state-of-the-nation speech in which he issued the latest in a series of warnings to the West about weapons he says Russia has been developing or deploying in recent years.

In the speech itself, Putin poked fun at the idea of U.S. “exceptionalism” – one of Russia’s favorite targets in recent years – and suggested Americans would do better to forget about such lofty ideas and focus on whether they can count.

“Probably they can,” he said. “So let them calculate the range and speed of our future arms systems.”

Over nearly two decades in power, Putin has often repeated himself.

He did so several times on the day of the speech, proudly recounting his counting remark at a dinner with top Russian media figures – even before the meal was served, footage suggests.

Several guests nod appreciatively as Putin speaks. Outside the room, some observers seemed less impressed.

“Catching up with Putin's address. It sounds like he just discovered that flight time is shorter if you fly faster and even shorter if the distance is short,” Pavel Podvig, director of the Russian Nuclear Forces Project, a Moscow-based NGO focusing on Russia’s nuclear arsenal, remarked on Twitter on February 25. “And someone told him that ‘hypersonic’ means really fast.”

The Pentagon, meanwhile, suggested that Putin’s tough talk may not have the effect he would seem to have intended.

“Every time Putin issues these bombastic threats and touts his new doomsday devices, he should know he only deepens NATO’s resolve to work together to ensure our collective security,” Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon said, according to Reuters.

‘Very Excited’

Regardless of whether U.S. officials were counting ranges and speeds, at least one Russian was: Among Putin’s dinner guests was Dmitry Kiselyov, the head of the state-owned media company Rossia Segodnya and the host of a weekly news show who told Sunday night viewers in March 2014 that Russia is the only country “capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash.”

Last Sunday, Kiselyov was at it again. Four days after Putin’s address, his show listed U.S. facilities it said Moscow would target in retaliation for a nuclear strike, and he asserted – with the help of on-screen visual aids including maps featuring bows of bending light meant to show missile trajectories – that they could reach their targets in five minutes or less.

Putin spent more time on domestic issues than on foreign policy in general or weapons in particular or missiles themselves in his speech. But one Twitter user remarked that in recent appearances, he “looks very excited talking about missiles and new weapons and bored when it concerns [the] economy.”

With good reason, perhaps.

“Russia has a very strong incentive to bring up nuclear issues as often as possible, because when you look at Russia as a nuclear power, it is indisputably a superpower,” Justin Bronk, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), an independent defense and security think tank in Britain, told RFE/RL.

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“When you look at Russia on almost any other metric, it is, at best, a regional power with declining demographics, budgets, and huge numbers of problems,” he said.

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Some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward, by RFE/RL's News Editor Steve Gutterman.

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