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A Year After Nemtsov's Assassination, New Threats Emerge

  • Daniel Schearf

A memorial procession on Saturday for murdered Russian opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, will trace the same route as his last march - a 2014 protest against Russia's hybrid war in Ukraine.

Critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin are marking one year since the assassination of Nemtsov, who was shot in the back while crossing a bridge near the Kremlin.

Russian authorities say the investigation into Nemtsov's killing is complete, but his supporters say otherwise.

“The assassination of Nemtsov is not solved,” said Mikhail Kasyanov, a former Russian prime minister and leader of the opposition Parnas Party. “Only the perpetrators were found, not the paymasters and the organizers of this defiant crime.”

“All traces lead to Chechnya,” he added.

Suspicions have fallen on Chechnya's leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, who was linked to the alleged killers and voiced support for the main suspect, Zaur Dadayev, calling him a “true patriot” of Russia.

While one of the five suspects in the murder was deputy commander of a security battalion loyal to the pro-Putin Kadyrov, Russian prosecutors completed their investigation without questioning Kadyrov, as Nemtsov supporters had demanded.

“And, what we're seeing instead is that the official investigation wants us to believe that the assassination of the leader of the Russian opposition, 200 yards away from the Kremlin wall, was masterminded by a driver,” said Parnas Party Deputy and Coordinator of the Open Russia Foundation Vladimir Kara-Murza. “This seems to be the official position that investigators are taking in preparation for the trial of the alleged killers.”

Russian prosecutors claim the mastermind behind the killing was Ruslan Mukhudinov, the driver of the leader of the Sever battalion.

Threats by Kadyrov

Meanwhile, authorities are dismissing the Chechen leader's threats against other opposition leaders.

FILE - Chechen regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov speaks to journalists in Chechnya's provincial capital Grozny, Russia, Dec. 28, 2015.

FILE - Chechen regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov speaks to journalists in Chechnya's provincial capital Grozny, Russia, Dec. 28, 2015.

The Kremlin dismissed a recent video Kadyrov posted on Instagram showing opposition leaders targeted in a sniper's cross-hairs. Kadyrov had earlier called Russia’s opposition “enemies of the people” who should be judged as traitors, comments that were played down by Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov as misunderstood references.

Kasyanov filed a criminal complaint over the video threat, but prosecutors rejected it.

“It seems that Putin's supporters are above the law,” Kasyanov said. “The present situation that we face de-facto in Russia today is most awful.”

Despite the threats, Kasyanov and Kara-Murza say they are not taking any special safety precautions.

“During the first year after my resignation from the position of prime-minister I had bodyguards,” Kasyanov said, “then Putin ruled to stop it. For the past 11 years I have not got any security guards and de-facto I am the only ex-prime minister who is not guarded by the state.”

Three months after Nemtsov's killing, Kara-Murza went into a sudden coma. He recovered after emergency treatment but believes he was poisoned because of his opposition to Putin.

Demonizing the opposition

Russian prosecutors in December announced an arrest warrant for Open Russia’s founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, claiming he was responsible for a 1998 murder. Kara-Murza notes the charges came after Khodorkovsky announced plans to financially support opposition candidates and monitor upcoming elections for fraud.

“And we announced this project just before the new year and the official authorities announced these new criminal charges against Mikhail Khodorkovsky also just before the new year,” he said. “I think this was, frankly, their way of launching their own election campaign by trying to smear their principal opponent ahead of time.”

FILE - Former Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks during a Reuters Newsmaker event at Canary Wharf in London, Britain.

FILE - Former Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks during a Reuters Newsmaker event at Canary Wharf in London, Britain.

Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon, spent 10 years in prison for tax evasion, in a case widely believed political, before Putin pardoned and released him in 2013. He is now in exile.

Nemtsov’s supporters say the demonization of the opposition and legal attacks against independent civic groups, belies a weakness in Putin’s record high public approval ratings.

“That is not the behavior of a regime that has 86 percent or whatever they say they have in the polls,” said Kara-Murza. “That is the behavior of a government that is weak, that is unsure of its position, and is afraid of any slightest challenge to its authority.” .

“And, frankly, I think they have their right to be afraid,” he added.

Blocking memorials for Nemtsov

Moscow authorities have refused to allow a memorial march at the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge where Nemtsov was killed or a permanent marker there.

"In their minds, I mean in the minds of those in power, there is an idea that the symbolism of this spot must be avoided," Kasyanov said.

FILE - A woman lays a bunch of flowers at a place where Boris Nemtsov was gunned down on Feb. 27, 2015.

FILE - A woman lays a bunch of flowers at a place where Boris Nemtsov was gunned down on Feb. 27, 2015.

Nonetheless, volunteers guard the temporary memorial of flowers, candles, portraits, and messages.

“He was not a typical Russian politician,” said volunteer guard Pavel Tokmakov. “He was open, brave, honest and an unblemished man. And, that's why we are all here to preserve the memory of this man.”

Kremlin supporters frequently knock down the flowers and break the portraits - attacks that volunteers say are sometimes aided by nearby police.

Mark Grinberg contributed to this report.

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