The politics of Putin critic Boris Nemtsov's murder
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The brutal slaying of former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov in Moscow on Friday has stunned Russians of all political stripes. An estimated 50,000 people took part in a peaceful march on Sunday to memorialize the slain former political leader. Sadly, the macabre but inevitable parlor game of assigning responsibility for his murder began immediately upon announcement of his death. As respective sides have begun to vehemently assign blame on their political opponents, it is worthwhile to try to understand the broader political implications of Nemtsov's assassination.

First, as tragic as his murder was, Nemtsov was long ago relegated to play a marginal role in Russian politics, both broadly speaking and within the world of the emasculated and fractious political opposition. He was a well-known and ubiquitous raconteur, but his political career effectively ended in the 1990s when former President Boris Yeltsin, who appointed him as deputy prime minister, resigned and transferred power to current President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinPutin nominated for Nobel Peace Prize Navalny released from hospital after suspected poisoning Ex-Trump national security adviser says US leaders 'making it easy for Putin' to meddle MORE. Nemtsov eventually became an outspoken critic of Putin, but his criticisms generally fell on deaf ears as the economy expanded and wages grew significantly during Putin's first two terms as president. More recently, the younger and cyber savvy Alexei Navalny (who is currently temporarily incarcerated) emerged as a new opposition leader, untainted by the excesses of the Yeltsin era and thus more representative of the aspirations of Russia's emerging middle class.


Second, Nemtsov's death will not substantively alter the trajectory of Russian politics as current leadership, policies and institutions will continue and the opposition will remain frustratingly fragmented. Tonally, the Kremlin may make adjustments to either expand or reign in the more extreme vitriol that has run rampant since Moscow annexed Crimea and provided comfort to rebels in eastern Ukraine. The government's control of the most popular mass media outlets allows it to determine the political narrative as it sees most beneficial, and early signs suggest the Kremlin is raising the temperature by calling Nemtsov's murder a "provocation." Similarly, the Kremlin-controlled media will likely air a multitude of conspiracy theories about possible motives for Nemtsov's murder, designed to deflect any unwanted attention away from the government and to strengthen popular appeal for the current administration. Certainly, some opposition leaders will be intimidated, and some will depart politics or even Russia itself, but entrenched ideological lines-in-the-sand will continue to divide the political opposition. As Nemtsov himself told the Financial Times last week in an interview, the opposition movement was at its nadir and resembled a fractured group of Soviet-era dissidents instead of a cohesive political movement. That said, the waning Russian economy represents fertile terrain for opposition politicians, and many will continue, though certainly more wary of political violence.

Third, while domestic politics will not be substantively altered, international relations, already at post-Cold War lows due to the Ukrainian conflict, will worsen. This will be particularly evident in relations with EU member states, some of whom have shown weakening resolve regarding expanding or renewing economic sanctions against Russia. While additional sanctions will not likely be introduced as the nascent yet fragile cease-fire in Ukraine appears to be holding, EU member states, particularly those which might be more favorably predisposed to a speedy termination of sanctions, will find it increasingly difficult to oppose calls for strong measures against Russia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will continue to lead in this respect, and her patience with Russian leadership has long since ended. Her statements and actions in the next weeks will be increasingly indicative of how Western policy towards Russia may evolve.

Fourth, Nemtsov's murder is unlikely to be resolved, at least with any satisfaction to his supporters, the opposition or the West. Russia's track record on solving murder-for-hire cases is woefully inadequate. Moreover, the judicial system fails to inspire confidence, as it renders decisions that are consistently deemed overtly political. Only last week, Russia's Investigate Committee announced that it was still investigating the 20-year-old murder case of Vladislav Listyev, an extremely popular journalist and television personality who at the time headed Russian television's Channel One. Even in cases where a trigger man may be convicted, often under murky circumstances, justice is not rendered against those who ordered the hit.

Tragically, Nemtsov's death is more likely to parallel the murder of Galina Starovoitova, a Russian politician who was gunned down in St. Petersburg in 1998. Her murder literally shocked Russians out of their complacency toward violence, which was rampant during the 1990s. Her assassins were eventually convicted, but those responsible for ordering the hit remain unknown. Such is likely the fate of Boris Nemtsov.

The name of the late Russian journalist Vladislav Listyev was previously misstated in this piece.

Colley is managing director of Highgate Consulting.