2 Mar 2015

Russia’s opposition after Nemtsov – the key questions

What does the future hold for Russian politics after one of its most prominent opposition activists was gunned down in front of CCTV cameras, just 200 metres from the Kremlin?

What is the background to Boris Nemtsov’s death?

The charismatic Russian opposition politician was gunned down near the Kremlin on 27 February, days before he was due to lead a public protest in Moscow against Russia’s economic crisis and the country’s involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine.

In an interview on the Russian-language Sobesednik website on 10 February, just over two weeks before his death, Nemtsov suggested that Vladimir Putin wanted him dead, and unequivocally blames the Russian president for unleashing conflict in Ukraine.

The planned protest become a commemoration of Nemtsov’s life, attended by tens of thousands of Russians. But the prediction before his death had been that the meeting would not attract large crowds – an indication of the present weakness of opposition politics in Russia.

Boris Nemtsov in 1995 (Getty Images)

Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, 1995 (Getty Images)

Was Nemtsov’s star on the wane when he was killed?

Boris Nemtsov came to political prominence in the 1990s as MP for, and then governor of, Nizhni Novgorod – as such, he blazed a trail as an advocate of multi-party democracy and private enterprise. In 1997 he was appointed first deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin, a post he held for little more than a year.

But Nemtsov’s movement away from Russia’s political mainstream mirrored the gradual polarisation of politics under Vladimir Putin. By 2011 he had become one of the prime movers behind the opposition marches in Moscow that followed Russia’s controversial legislative elections.

Although still prominent as a Putin critic at the time of his death, there was a sense that his time as a political heavyweight had come and gone.

“I saw Nemtsov at an event in Estonia two years ago,” recalls John Lough, Russia specialist at Chatham House. “I felt that while he was an energetic figure, a man of conviction and dignity, I came away with the impression he was one of yesterday’s people.

“I didn’t see anything at that stage that suggested he had the capacity, in those circumstances, to become a truly influential figure in Russia.”

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Boris Nemtsov with Garry Kasparov (Getty Images)

Garry Kasparov (left) with Boris Nemtsov, January 2004 (Getty Images)

What has happened to opposition politicians under Putin?

Vladimir Putin became Russian president in 2000 and has been president ever since – with the exception of four years between 2008-12 when he served as prime minister under President Dmitri Medvedev.

As president, Putin has presided over a crackdown on political opponents, but in particular during his current third term.

In February 2012, one month before Russia’s last presidential elections, a Channel 4 News report assessed the state of the opposition in the country. It mentioned Pussy Riot, three of whose members were sentenced to two years in jail in August of that year.

The article also cited Alexei Navalny, chess player Garry Kasparov, Sergei Udaltsov, the author Boris Akunin and, of course, Boris Nemtsov as standard-bearers for Russia’s political opposition.

Since then, Navalny has been imprisoned, Akunin has distanced himself from anti-Putin politics, Kasparov has been arrested for protesting at the 2012 Pussy Riot trial, and Udaltsov has been held under house arrest.

Boris Nemtsov at a rally in Moscow on 24 December 2011 (Getty Images)

Boris Nemtsov at a Moscow protest against poll rigging, December 2011 (Getty Images)

And where are the opposition political parties?

Meanwhile, the Parnas pro-democracy grouping – founded, among others, by Boris Nemtsov in 2010 – has been dissolved. Solidarnost – another pro-democratic movement, also founded by Nemtsov – appears to exist only via its website. And many of the other political parties formed around the time of the elections in 2011 and 2012 are no longer around.

Non-system opposition in Russia has been pulverised. John Lough, Chatham House

“Russia’s opposition exists as a set of rather disparate groups at the moment that have been largely hounded off the scene,” says John Lough. “There’s no immediate likelihood they’ll return in organised form.

“That’s not to say there isn’t dissatisfaction in society. But at the moment, the present system has rather successfully achieved a monopoly on power through limitation of a form of democracy that, in reality, means there is no real opposition.

“‘Non-system opposition’ has been pulverised.”

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Boris Nemtsov with Vladimir Putin (Getty Images)

Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin, July 2000 (Getty Images)

Where does it leave politics in Russia?

One of the most disturbing aspects of Nemtsov’s killing is that a prominent opposition spokesman could be assassinated just 200 metres from the Kremlin, the seat of Russia’s political power. It appears to send a clear signal that those responsible could do what they did with impunity, despite video surveillance and a strong police presence.

“It’s just so brazen, the way it’s been done,” says John Lough, “and that in itself sends a signal that will intimidate others.”

What is more, it comes as Russia faces a domestic economic crisis, combined with a major military challenge across its border in eastern Ukraine. Nemtsov and other opposition politicians have been warning for years about their country’s failure to diversify the economy away from a reliance on oil and gas.

Now, as Vladimir’s Putin’s system appears to have reached its limit in terms of economic achievement, Russia’s political elite, unchallenged by meaningful opposition, may lack the desire or the capacity to effect the necessary change.