THERE was a time not so long ago when the idea of Boris Nemtsov occupying the Kremlin seemed entirely plausible. A charismatic and eloquent reformer, he rose to the office of deputy prime minister and was regarded as a potential successor to Boris Yeltsin.
But a generation on, having been cast into the opposition wilderness after being overlooked for the presidency in favour of Vladimir Putin, Nemtsov’s ties with the Kremlin are drawn in blood.
In a brazen killing reminiscent of the gangland executions of the chaotic post-Soviet years, one of Putin’s most vehement critics was gunned down in the shadows of Moscow’s citadel of power.
Shortly before midnight on Friday evening, the 55-year-old was crossing a bridge over the Moskva river with a Ukrainian woman when a white car approached. An assailant took aim from an open window and discharged at least four pistol rounds into Nemtsov’s back before fleeing the scene. His companion was unhurt.
At around 2am, his body was lifted from the wet asphalt and placed in a plastic bag as police recovered six 9mm cartridge cases from the roadside. Within hours, hundreds arrived to lay flowers and pay tribute to an outspoken voice that had fallen silent.
Yesterday, when confirmation came of the first assassination of a major political figure in Moscow for a decade, Russia and the world reacted with shock, anger and fear.
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As global leaders and humanitarian groups condemned the “cold-blooded murder” of the father-of-four, Putin vowed to find those responsible for the “vile and cynical crime”.
But with the nation’s ignominious track record in serving justice on those responsible for assassination killings, doubts over the efficacy and transparency of the Russian investigation are widespread.
Those allied to Nemtsov in opposition to Putin’s rule also voiced concern over what his death signified. Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister and prominent detractor of the Kremlin, said his country was now “rolling into the abyss”. Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president said Nemtsov was a “bridge between Ukraine and Russia”, adding: “The murderers’ shot has destroyed it. I think it is not by accident.”
A nuclear scientist who served as a regional governor of Nizhny Novgorod, Sochi-born Nemtsov’s profile soared under Yeltsin, but he was marginalised after Putin took office, a process that eventually led to him becoming a fierce critic of government corruption and inefficiency.
Co-chair of the Republican Party of Russia, he dismissed 2014’s Winter Olympics as one of the most “outrageous swindles” in recent Russian history and condemned Putin’s annexation of Crimea. At the time of his death, he was gathering evidence he believed would prove Russia’s direct involvement in the Ukraine crisis.
Speaking on radio just a few hours before his death, he accused Putin of plunging Russia into crisis by his “mad, aggressive and deadly policy of war against Ukraine”.
Nemtsov himself knew his work was dangerous. In an interview with the Sobesednik newspaper earlier this month, he admitted his 86-year-old mother was afraid Putin could have him killed. Asked if feared as much, he replied: “If I were afraid I wouldn’t have led an opposition party.”
The politician’s lawyer, Vadim Prokhorov, said the politician had received threats on social networks and told police about them, but authorities took no steps to protect him.
In a strongly worded statement, Prime Minister David Cameron said Nemtsov was “a man of courage and conviction” who led a life of service, demanding the right to democracy and liberty.
“He did so without fear, and never gave in to intimidation,” he added. “The courage of Nemtsov’s life contrasts with the utter cowardice of his murder.”
President Barack Obama called on Russia to launch a “prompt, impartial and transparent” investigation into the murder of a “tireless advocate” for citizens’ rights.
The investigations committee of Russia, a federal agency answerable to Putin, has already posited a patchwork of potential theories and motives as to why Nemtsov was murdered, a strategy critics say is designed to obfuscate and hinder the process of justice.
In a lengthy statement, the committee said police were pursuing half a dozen leads, including the notion that Nemtsov was gunned down by opposition colleagues to cement his status as a martyr.
It also suggested the act was a deliberate “provocation” to destabilise the nation’s politics, or may have been the work of “radical personalities” on either side of the Ukrainian conflict. Even Islamic extremists emerged as possible suspects, given Nemtsov’s stance on the Charlie Hebdo shootings.
Other vaguer possibilities aired have included Nemtsov’s business dealings and his personal life. One television station with ties to the Russian security services, Life News, quoted a source as suggesting that Nemtsov was murdered in revenge for having caused a woman to have an abortion.
Nemtsov was due to spearhead a rally in Moscow today protesting Russia’s role in Ukraine. Organisers have since cancelled the demonstration and called for a gathering to mourn him.
The legacy of a man many once tipped as a future president is only just beginning.