At the ramparts.

Photographer: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

Nemtsov's Murder Shakes Russian Opposition

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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The murder of a high-profile Russian opposition leader has already sent a chill among President Vladimir Putin's beleaguered political foes.

Putin's opponents have turned up dead before. Russia's president has sent rival oligarchs and punk bands to prison camps. He has shut down television stations and banned nongovernmental organizations. But the murder of Boris Nemtsov is now raising the question among opposition figures whether the Kremlin would go even farther.     

In the immediate aftermath of Nemtsov's murder in the middle of Moscow, authorities did not name any suspects. A spokesman said Putin expressed condolences to the family and ordered an investigation. "Putin emphasized that this brutal murder has all the signs of being ordered and is of an exclusively provocative character," the spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, told news outlets

But some members of the opposition see the long arm of the Kremlin.

"As a politician I cannot say who else can be responsible for this. There is no explanation for this other than the Kremlin doing this," Ilya Ponomarev, a leftist who was the only member of the Russian Duma who voted against Russia's annexation of Crimea, told me Friday evening.  

"Who gave the order to kill Nemtsov? Who knows," said Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion and leading opposition figure. "But this was done not far from the Kremlin and it would have been done by Putin's cronies. Who ordered it? I don't care. Putin must be held responsible for the murder of Boris."

Nemtsov himself said in an interview this month that his mother feared that Putin would kill him, but he himself was not afraid.

Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow from 2012 to 2014, told me he would be shocked to learn that Putin had personally ordered Nemtsov's assassination. But McFaul said Putin was partially to blame for the murder nonetheless. "The atmosphere that Putin has created, which continues to call people like Nemtsov the enemy of the state, and whips up this fervor, creates the atmosphere under which these kinds of tragedies can happen," he said. 

Representative Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, echoed this sentiment in a statement Friday evening: "Lawlessness now pervades Putin’s Russia. Regardless of who killed Boris Nemtsov, this shocking murder is the latest assault on those who dare to oppose the Putin regime." 

Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, did not have much of a political constituency in Russia. But he was a particularly tough critic of Putin's regime on the global stage. During President Barack Obama's first term, Nemtsov traveled to Washington to make the case against the White House's so-called reset policy with Russia, warning that it ignored past Russian transgressions and would only embolden Putin. Most recently, he published investigations into the corruption surrounding Russia's hosting of the Sochi Olympics.

Ponomarev, now in exile in the U.S, said he feared what could happen if he were still living in Moscow. "I definitely take this personally," he told me. "I think if I would have stayed inside Russia I could have been in his place."

Kasparov was also blunt: "The message is this. We have no allergy to blood and anyone can be killed."

McFaul, who knew Nemtsov personally for 30 years, was shaken up by the murder. He said he remembered once when Nemtsov came to visit him at the ambassadorial residence, and McFaul arranged it so he could drive onto the compound without being stopped by the Russian police at the gate. "When he came in, we chatted and joked about how I was dealing with harassment similar to him," he remembered.

But the tone of their conversation eventually changed. "As he got ready to leave, he wasn't joking," McFaul said. "We watched him drive out with two cars tailing him very deliberately, to make sure he knew they knew where he was and what he was doing."

The former ambassador added, "It was a hellish way to live in your own country." 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net