Last week, Russia marked the fourth anniversary of the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, the country’s most prominent opposition leader. Much has been written about his long political life. He was most notable for a remarkable consistency of views, both in his various government positions in the 1990s and in his opposition to Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism after 2000.
But Nemtsov’s political effectiveness — and the danger he presented to the Kremlin — is best summed up by his accomplishments in the years immediately before his death. In 2012, he played an instrumental role in securing the passage of the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law that leveled sanctions on Kremlin officials involved in human rights abuses. (Sen. John McCain, one of the law’s main sponsors, said “without Boris Nemtsov, we would not have had the Magnitsky Act.”) In 2013, Nemtsov won a regional election — the first authentic opposition figure to do so under Putin, securing a seat in the legislature and refuting the Kremlin’s portrayal of democrats as marginal figures with no public support. In 2014, while the regime claimed near-universal support for its actions against Ukraine, Nemtsov led tens of thousands of people through the streets of Moscow to protest Putin’s war.
Nemtsov had big plans. In 2016, he was intending to run for parliament from his new home base of Yaroslavl and was considered to be the opposition candidate with the best chance to win. In the event of a victory, he was planning to challenge Putin for the presidency in 2018 and disrupt the Kremlin’s prearranged electoral charade. He could do neither. On the evening of Feb. 27, 2015, Nemtsov was killed by gunshots to the back as he walked across a bridge steps away from the Kremlin.
Last week, on the Sunday before the anniversary, thousands of Russians walked down the same route Nemtsov did at the antiwar march in 2014 — from Pushkin Square to Sakharov Avenue — in a demonstration of remembrance. As we stopped just past Trubnaya Square, on a high point, to look back, there was no end in sight to the line of people who came to pay their respects to the man the Kremlin has referred to as “little more than an average citizen.” Just as in life, in death Nemtsov continues to bring together the different shades of Russia’s fragmented opposition: Alexei Navalny, Dmitri Gudkov and Grigory Yavlinsky are rarely seen together outside of the annual commemorations for Nemtsov.
The participants of the Moscow march, and similar rallies across Russia, came not only to remember but also to demand justice. After four years, Russia’s most high-profile political assassination remains unsolved and unpunished. Beyond the immediate perpetrators — all of them linked to the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov — no organizers or masterminds have been indicted or tried. Attempts by rank-and-file investigators to go higher have been blocked. The key evidence has been withheld; the key people of interest have not been questioned. Russian authorities have pointedly refused to classify the murder of the opposition leader as a political crime. As far as they are concerned, the Nemtsov case is closed.
When national governments fail to uphold the rule of law, the international community must step in. This is not an idealistic daydream, but a founding principle of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), whose Moscow Document explicitly states that “issues relating to human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law … are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the State concerned.” Citing this mandate, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has appointed its vice president, Margareta Cederfelt of Sweden, as the rapporteur on the Nemtsov case, tasked with reporting on the circumstances of the assassination and assessing the effectiveness of the investigation conducted in Russia. The preliminary findings are due in July; the final report is expected to be completed next year.
A similar report must be prepared by the U.S. government, with those found responsible to face sanctions under the Magnitsky Act. This request is conveyed in two bipartisan resolutions tabled last week in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
No less important than the quest for justice is the international role in honoring the legacy of Nemtsov. Three major world cities — Washington; Vilnius, Lithuania; and Kiev — have already named streets for him; similar initiatives are underway in London and Toronto. These gestures of solidarity are important not only in themselves; they also help those dedicated supporters in Russia who continue to push for commemorating Nemtsov at home.
Last week, these efforts brought a deeply meaningful victory. On Feb. 27, at a small ceremony attended by friends, colleagues and family members, the city of Nizhny Novgorod unveiled a memorial plaque on a Soviet-era apartment building where Nemtsov lived while he was regional governor. “It is so beautiful … made with love,” said Dina Nemtsova, Boris Nemtsov’s mother, just days shy of her 91st birthday when speaking at the ceremony. “I am bowing to everyone and saying the most profound thank you.”