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Trudy Rubin: Nemtsov’s slaying is final blow to democratic Russia

Russians pay their respects Monday at the place where Boris Nemtsov, a sharp critic of President Vladimir Putin, was gunned down Friday.
Russians pay their respects Monday at the place where Boris Nemtsov, a sharp critic of President Vladimir Putin, was gunned down Friday. Associated Press

The assassination of Boris Nemtsov on Friday only steps from the Kremlin marks the final blow to the dream of a liberal democratic Russia, a dream that once flourished after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

It’s hard to believe this joyous, funny, tall, mop-haired opposition leader was shot in the back from a moving car by a professional killer – the highest-profile political murder since the fall of the Soviet Union.

A former deputy prime minister who became one of the most outspoken critics of Vladimir Putin, Nemtsov lay sprawled on a bridge with the candy-colored domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral in the background.

Who killed him and why? I’ll get to that question in a moment. First, let me describe the first and last (of many) times I met with Nemtsov. That will help explain why his death is such a loss for Russia and such an indictment of Putin’s regime.

In 1992, the 33-year-old Nemtsov came to Philadelphia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Trained as a nuclear physicist, he had just been elected governor of Nizhny Novgorod province, formerly the site of the principal Soviet nuclear weapons research center. He hoped that Nizhny’s provincial capital would became Philadelphia’s sister city (it did), and that he could find joint-venture partners in Philly’s University City Science Center to help re-employ former weapons scientists on peaceful projects (he didn’t).

What I remember most clearly was Nemtsov’s boyish enthusiasm and his long-term vision for his country. He believed Russia had to move its economy away from heavy reliance on a state-run military-industrial complex and toward civilian enterprises. “The brainpower is enormous (in Russia),” he said, “but there was no way to turn ideas into products in our old centralized system.”

Nemtsov’s dynamism attracted seed capital from many international agencies. He rose to become deputy prime minister and point man for market reforms under Boris Yeltsin in the mid-1990s and was briefly considered a possible presidential candidate.

But Russia’s autocratic past couldn’t be overcome in one decade. A 1998 ruble crash and bank default led to the firing of Yeltsin’s economic reformers, including Nemtsov. Putin became president in December 1999 and began sidelining any opponents. Opposition parties and independent media were squeezed out, and many activists and journalists were mysteriously murdered.

Yet Nemtsov never gave up, never went into exile, and always appeared at the head of Moscow’s pro-democracy protests, even when they grew smaller as government repression grew greater. As Putin whipped nationalist fervor in 2014, Nemtsov was one of the few who dared to denounce his seizure of Crimea.

For that, he was denounced by the Kremlin-controlled media as a traitor. A huge banner with his portrait and those of four others was hung from a high building in the heart of Moscow labeling them a “fifth column.” Yet Nemtsov was poised to issue an explosive report that he said would prove Russian soldiers were fighting in eastern Ukraine and that would show Putin was lying when he told the public no Russians were dying there.

My last meeting with Nemtsov was in March 2012 over a lengthy, boisterous dinner at a popular Moscow eatery called Coffeemania. He was organizing a big pro-democracy demonstration before presidential elections, and his two cellphones were ringing constantly.

“Putin has destroyed all state institutions over the past 12 years,” he told me, “including the election system, the courts, and the army. He wants to control everything.” Ever the optimist, Nemtsov predicted Putin’s own errors, especially with the economy, would eventually undermine him.

Was he nervous about Putin’s public claim that the opposition planned to murder one of their leaders so they could blame the crime on the Kremlin? “I’m very worried about that,” he said. “If the leader of a KGB country says he knows someone from the opposition will be killed, it means he’s warning, ‘Stop what you are doing or you will be responsible for your own death.’”

Which raises the question of who murdered Nemtsov. Putin has denounced the killing, and a Russian government spokesman blamed it on Islamist terrorists. But already some officials are hinting the murder was a “provocation” to rally support for opponents of the government.

No matter. This murder was clearly a consequence of Kremlin policy, whether or not it was directly involved.

On the day before the murder, Putin signed a decree making Feb. 27 an annual holiday celebrating Russia’s seizure of Crimea. The holiday is dedicated to Russia’s special forces, the “little green men” who seized Crimea wearing unmarked uniforms, even as Putin denied any Russians were involved.

The Feb. 27 murder of the “traitor” Nemtsov was clearly meant as a present to Putin on the first “Special Forces Day.” That’s true, no matter who hired the gunman.

Trudy Rubin’s email is trubin@phillynews.com.

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