Russian dissidents urged the D.C. Council on Wednesday to rename the street in front of the Russian Embassy to honor a prominent opposition leader assassinated in Moscow.
They said the symbolic renaming of the street for Boris Nemtsov, who was slain in 2015, would send a strong signal to the world that the United States stands for democracy and freedom.
"The current Russian political regime wants to eradicate the memory of my father, since it believes — correctly — that symbols are important and can potentially facilitate and inspire change," said Nemtsov's daughter, Zhanna Nemtsova, who flew from Germany to testify before the D.C. Council.
The legislation, introduced in October, would designate Wisconsin Avenue NW between Edmunds and Davis streets as "Boris Nemtsov Plaza." The name would appear beneath the existing Wisconsin Avenue street sign, and addresses on that block would not change.
The Russian Embassy does not have a say in whether the street name is changed.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who co-sponsored the bill, said he expects the council to approve the legislation early next year. But if approved, it could trigger concerns in the White House and on Capitol Hill, which both have the power to quash local D.C. laws.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) originally co-sponsored Senate legislation to rename the street in February, with bipartisan support from eight other senators, including Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). The legislation was blocked, and, according to council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Rubio and Coons met with city leaders about passing the bill in the D.C. Council.
Cheh said she believes in the symbolism of the legislation and thinks local laws should pass through local chambers, not Congress. She said the timing of the legislation is unrelated to current U.S. politics surrounding Russia or the 2016 election.
"We are the nation's capital, and we celebrate the principles of democratic governance," she said.
Nemtsov was elected to regional positions in the Russian government during the 1990s and later became deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin. When President Vladimir Putin rose to power, Nemtsov became an outspoken and prominent critic, amassing a large following. He was gunned down in February 2015 while walking across a heavily guarded bridge in front of the Kremlin.
Five people were convicted of being paid to kill Nemtsov, although the person who paid them never was identified. Nemtsov's family has criticized the trial.
Vladimir Kara-Murza, chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom and an outspoken Putin critic, testified that supporters of Nemtsov have tried to push for plaques and memorials in Russia in his honor but with no success. Kara-Murza said supporters often leave flowers for Nemtsov where he was gunned down, but then government workers throw them away at night.
Kara-Murza brought his children to the hearing, including his young daughter, who was Nemtsov's goddaughter.
"The [street sign] is also a message and a reminder to Russian democrats that our fight is not ignored or forgotten, and to Americans that Russia is not only about Putin's autocracy, and that there are honorable Russians, like Boris Nemtsov, who are standing up for dignity and justice," Kara-Murza said.
A District Department of Transportation official said it would take three to four weeks to create and install the signage.
About a half-dozen people spoke Wednesday in favor of changing the street name. D.C. resident Jeremy Bigwood was the lone person who spoke in opposition to the legislation, although Mendelson said he has received emails asking him to oppose the bill from those who say there is no evidence that Putin or his supporters are connected to Nemtsov's killing.
"This bill is a bad idea," said Bigwood, a freelance archival researcher. "This will look like Washington, D.C., is sticking up a middle finger to the Russian Embassy."
The Senate and the D.C. Council have used street names in the past as a way to rebuke the government of a nearby embassy. In 1984, the Senate renamed the street in front of the previous Russian Embassy on 16th Street NW after Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov.
And Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is trying to rename the street outside the Chinese Embassy after Liu Xiaobo, a pro-democracy dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner who died this year in a Chinese prison. Cruz pushed a bill through the Senate in 2016, but President Barack Obama said he would veto it, and the bill died.
The D.C. Council plans to vote on the new bill, which requires two votes, Dec. 19 and Jan. 10. In that final action, council members will vote concurrently on an identical emergency version of the bill, speeding up the legislative process to allow for signage in time for the third anniversary of Nemtsov's death Feb. 27.
Emergency resolutions are good for 90 days and avoid a 30-day congressional review process. The permanent legislation still would have to go through the review process.