The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Boris Nemtsov’s murder is another dark sign for Russia

File picture dated 02 February 2014 shows Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov during an opposition rally in Moscow, Russia. A veteran Russian opposition leader has been shot and killed in Moscow, police said on 27 February 2015. (Yuri Kochetkov)

BORIS NEMTSOV was a courageous Russian politician who never gave up on the dream that the country could make the transition from dictatorship to liberal democracy. Once an elected governor and a deputy prime minister in the government of Boris Yeltsin, he stubbornly continued to speak out and organize against the regime of Vladi­mir Putin after other opponents fled the country or lapsed into silence. Most recently, he called on Russians to participate in a protest march Sunday in Moscow. On Friday evening, he was gunned down, gangland-style, on a bridge near the Kremlin — a terrible blow to the cause of human rights and another dark sign of where Russia is headed.

Russians were shocked by the killing, if only because Mr. Nemtsov had become one of the most enduring political figures of the post-Soviet era. But he was by no means the first Putin opponent to be murdered in brazen fashion. Similar hits by gunmen killed the dissident lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow and the human rights activist Natalia Estemirova in Chechnya. A former KGB agent who turned on Mr. Putin, Alexander Litvinenko, was assassinated in London by agents who poisoned him with radioactive polonium. In none of these and other cases have those responsible been held accountable. When a British investigation of the Litvinenko case identified a leading suspect, he was made a member of the Russian parliament.

On Friday, Mr. Putin announced through a spokesman that he would personally oversee the investigation of Mr. Nemtsov’s killing. But in a country where the police and judiciary have been perverted to serve only Mr. Putin and his regime, the fruits of that investigation — if any — will be hard to credit.

Mr. Nemtsov, who said in a recent interview that he was worried that Mr. Putin would have him killed, seemed to pose little immediate threat to the Kremlin. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Putin's poll ratings have soared; even within the opposition, liberal democrats of the Yeltsin era such as Mr. Nemtsov have been overtaken by more populist and nationalist figures, such as Alexei Navalny. But Mr. Putin has been increasingly unwilling to tolerate opposition of any kind. Since returning to the presidency nearly three years ago he has sought to eliminate independent human rights groups and media. Mr. Navalny and several other opposition leaders have been prosecuted on trumped-up charges or driven out of the country.

Undaunted by the repression, Mr. Nemtsov kept working to expose the regime's corruption. Last year he released a report on the Sochi Olympics alleging that up to $30 billion of the $50 billion spent on the Games had been stolen. Most recently he bravely opposed the invasion of Ukraine, correctly predicting in September that Mr. Putin would seek to create a puppet state in the country's east. "Russia itself is sinking into lies, violence, obscurantism and imperial hysteria," he wrote in the Kyiv Post. Tragically, these words were confirmed by his murder.

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