By Patricia H Kushlis
The Blame Game had already begun less than 24 hours after Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead on a bridge in the shadow of the Kremlin. The Russian propaganda machine – well in overdrive for a year – is now pointing the finger at the US and Ukrainians by circulating a fake photograph of US Ambassador John Tefft laying a Ukrainian flag at Nemtsov’s memorial among others. Huh?
Ridiculous, you say? Cover up you ask? For whom you might ask? Why such quick accusations? And why was Nemtsov murdered Al Capone-style in a crime befitting of the Sicilian mafia or Mexican drug lords?
Could it be because Russia’s primary senior opposition figure left standing by a crafty and bloodthirsty regime – until the middle of the night of February 27 that is – publicly objected to the Kremlin’s seizure of Crimea, accused it of rampant corruption and Russia’s subsequent illegal actions in Eastern Ukraine?
Were these the straws that broke the Kremlin’s back? Who were the culprits? How close were they/are they to Putin? Why would they fear an honest and devoted politician like Boris Nemtsov enough to murder him? Was he really that much of a threat? And, if history is a predictor of the present, why will they never be charged and we never know? Of course, some poor schmuck is likely to be brought forward to face the music and bow before Russian style justice but the real people behind what was likely a hired killing will continue to operate with impunity just as they have in the past. If justice hasn’t happened thus far despite a series of unsolved politically motivated murders in Russia since the turn of the 21st century - not to mention before - how likely is it to happen now?
Was it because the 55-year old Nemtsov was the last major opposition leader of Putin’s generation still active? Was it because the protest march he helped to organize had the public support of Mikhail Khordorkovsky, exiled former political prisoner and oligarch who had challenged Putin’s leadership before Putin had him tossed in jail for a decade and who had signed the petition supporting the anti-Kremlin demonstration to be held on February 28?
Or was it because Nemtsov had simply stepped in for younger opposition leader, lawyer and blogger Aleksei Navalny who the Kremlin had so thoughtfully sent to jail for 15 days for handing out pamphlets on the Moscow Metro so as to prevent him from "publicizing" the first serious anti-Kremlin demonstration in months? Or more far-fetched, was it ISIS supporters who murdered Nemtsov because he was Jewish as some of the wilder propaganda accusations suggest?
It’s not, of course, the first time Putin’s Kremlin has resorted to gangland style killings or Stalin era poisonings to decimate the opposition – no matter how weak that opposition was. As Andrew Kramer of The New York Times and others have pointed out: investigative journalist Anna Politovskaya was murdered in an elevator in 2006 after reporting on the Kremlin’s brutal war against the Chechens which had vaulted Putin to power for his tough-guy stance; human rights worker Natalia Estemirova also involved in reporting on the Chechen conflict was abducted from her home in Grozny and killed by unknown assailants in 2009, and Aleksandr Litvinenko, the KGB defector who was poisoned in London by polonium: the trial against the primary suspect – now hiding behind Russian parliamentary immunity - is finally being allowed to proceed in British Courts.
And let’s not forget Sergei Magnitsky, Bill Browder’s lawyer who unmasked Kremlin corruption and tax fraud only to die painfully and inhumanely without treatment that could have saved him in 2009 in Moscow’s Butyrka Prison after being held for nearly a year without charges ever brought against him.
Russia’s elite live in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
It wasn’t the Russian country side that brought down the anti-Gorbachev coup makers in August 1991 – it was Russia’s intelligentsia and middle classes in Moscow and Leningrad who had carried banners on the streets day after day, year after year in opposition to life under the bankrupt rule of the 70 year old Communist Party.
By the end of the Gorbachev years, Russian reformers were supported by the ethnically-based Popular Fronts which had risen almost overnight in the European and Caucasian Republics in the late 1980s. The most active, daring and influential of those were in the Baltics and Ukraine. Truth be told, their goals were to gain independence from Moscow - a desire thought nigh impossible at the time.
In so doing they had also forged a relationship with popularly elected Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin who needed their support in a bitter dispute with Mikhail Gorbachev as well as to counter the hardline ultra-nationalists and Communists who had been trying to oust Gorbachev and seize control of the Soviet government.
Will the masterminds behind the trigger ever be brought to justice?
In reality, one may not have to look very far to find the instigators of this latest heinous murder and the most likely reason Putin immediately named himself to head the investigation: they are likely among Putin’s chief advocates and perhaps even advisers. At the very least, they are people who have been influenced by his regime's inflammatory anti-Western rhetoric and bellicose behavior.
This time, instead of forcibly taking over the Russian White House as some did in September 1993 – only to be removed by Yeltsin’s tanks, they have infiltrated the Putin government from within – influencing and supporting the policies and actions of ex-KBG Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Putin who, truth be told, was less qualified or competent to become the leader of a major country when he became Yeltsin’s anointed heir in 1999 than I was.
As the Economist pointed out in a February 14, 2015 special entitled “From Cold War to Hot War”: “those who fought Yeltsin and his ideas were active in the annexation of Crimea and are involved in the war in south-east Ukraine.” They are ultra-nationalists with whom Putin formed an alliance during the massive protests in December 2012 by thousands of westernized liberals who took to the street to protest corrupt elections to the Duma in the run up to the upcoming presidential election which anointed Putin once again. Those ultra-nationalists according to the Economist include Alexander Borodai now the first “prime minister” of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic.
Westernizers versus Slavophiles: updated version of an old story
Since the nineteenth century, there has been power struggle between Westernizers and Slavophiles in Russia. Between those who want the country to be more like the West and those who see imperial Russia standing as the lone bastion and defender of Slavic culture and the Russian Orthodox religion - the successor to the Byzantine Empire which had been overrun by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. In his bid to retain power, Vladimir Putin - employing all the tools of the Russian Orthodox Church - has thrown himself and his regime in with the latter.
Yet, through Nemtsov’s murder they have also just created a martyr - a potentially powerful symbol to rally the opposition. And yes, there still is an opposition. The several hundred thousand person march in Nemtsov’s honor that took place on Sunday in front of the Kremlin Walls that ended at the memorial on the bridge where Nemtsov was shot demonstrates as much.
Could Putin and his acolytes have finally bitten off more than even they can chew?