Markos Kounalakis

Silencing the opposition

Flowers and a portrait with the word “Fight!” are displayed Thursday in Moscow at the site near the Kremlin where Boris Nemtsov, a charismatic Russian opposition leader and sharp critic of President Vladimir Putin, was gunned down Feb. 27.
Flowers and a portrait with the word “Fight!” are displayed Thursday in Moscow at the site near the Kremlin where Boris Nemtsov, a charismatic Russian opposition leader and sharp critic of President Vladimir Putin, was gunned down Feb. 27. The Associated Press

Opposition research is an accepted part of democratic battle. You learn as much as you can about your opponent – the inevitable embarrassments of youth, sexual proclivities, financial improprieties or just stuff you can twist or credibly make up to put him or her on the defensive.

Societies with fragile or fake democratic systems have a more efficient way of dealing with political opposition leaders. Lock them up or kill them.

Boris Nemtsov is the most recent victim of this highly effective program. He was an active and outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and once served as deputy prime minister. There is no evidence – nor will there likely ever be any evidence – to link Russia’s leadership with the assassin who pumped four bullets into Nemtsov’s back in the Kremlin’s shadow. There is plenty of evidence, however, that Putin has enabled and encouraged the corrupt conditions for such cold-blooded criminality and retribution in a paranoid Russia on war footing.

Whether Nemtsov’s murder serves Putin’s purpose to consolidate absolute political power or is just another step toward his leadership’s eventual demise will become clear over time. Reactions to the murder will depend on perceptions of culpability. Perception will be everything; reality fungible.

If Russians see Kremlin fingerprints on the assassination, then Nemtsov could become an opposition-catalyzing martyr. If, however, as the state-controlled media and government spokesmen are spinning the story, Nemtsov’s murder is seen as an act potentially motivated by other factors (Chechens, Ukrainians, Martians), then Putin will use the event to crack down, lash out and ice anyone and everyone who is big enough to pose a threat to his leadership.

Putin is ready to implement the next phase of authoritarian crackdown following Nemtsov’s death, exhorting the police authorities to “finally rid Russia of shame and tragedy.” Truth continues to be the victim.

What holds true for any regime – however much truth is bent – is that death is an effective and immediate way to silence criticism. High profile, violent death has the extra-added benefit of letting any active or latent opponent, large or small, know that the cost of non-compliance or regime challenge is extremely high. The Chinese have an old proverb for this expressly symbolic and potent silencing act: “Kill the chicken to scare the monkeys.”

Chinese understand this, Russians are active practitioners, and authoritarian regimes worldwide have learned the lessons of killing chickens or, at least, caging roosters. Recently, there has been an uptick of opposition leaders crowing loudly about their countries’ corrupt or unrepresentative rulers. These varied voices of conscience or raw and extreme opposition have landed themselves in spots that read “Go Directly to Jail!”

Lists of opposition leaders who have been imprisoned for their acts of defiance are incredibly long. Former political leaders seem to have a special place inside the horror of the political hoosegow. Graft during their time in office may have something to do with charges against them, but their real contemporary crime seems to be their opposition to ruling parties. Here is a short summary:

▪  Recently, former Bangladeshi Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was issued an arrest warrant for failing to show up at court to answer corruption charges.

▪  Two weeks ago, Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the Maldives, was arrested on terrorism charges, forcibly dragged to the courtroom and denied bail, lawyers, or phone calls.

▪  A month ago, Malaysia’s former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was sent to prison after his sodomy conviction was upheld. Human Rights Watch declared this a “politically motivated prosecution.” He will walk out the prison gates when he turns 72 years old and rendered politically dead.

The list goes on and on and is a click away. In Kuwait, Syria, Turkey, Nigeria, Tajikistan, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bahrain, the authorities have all made moves to imprison leaders of the main opposition.

Many of those leaders will disappear for years, swallowed by a rigged legal system, forcibly forgotten by a cowed populace, enfeebled by age. Their voices will become weaker over time.

Boris Nemtsov’s voice and message may survive the grave and speak to a generation opposed to Putin. But death has nothing over life. Living opposition can sometimes survive imprisonment and its indignities, as did South Africa’s President Nelson Mandela, who rose to power after 27 incarcerated years.

A year ago, authorities arrested and kept jailed the handsome Harvard-educated 43-year-old Venezuelan Leopoldo López, a leader who shows strength and survival skills. Fully aware he was a thorn in President Nicolás Maduro’s side, while still free he demonstrated at a revolutionary hero’s statue, shouting: “If my jailing serves to awaken a people … then it will be well worth the infamous imprisonment imposed upon me directly, with cowardice.” He is not chicken.

Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.