News / Europe

    Could Nemtsov Threaten Putin in Death as in Life?

    FILE - Boris Nemtsov addresses supporters during a protest rally in Moscow, May 6, 2013.
    FILE - Boris Nemtsov addresses supporters during a protest rally in Moscow, May 6, 2013.
    Carl Schreck, RFE/RL

    With the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, gunned down on a Moscow street, the fiercest critic of President Vladimir Putin has been removed from the political stage.  But it remains to be seen whether, in death as in life, Nemtsov will remain a threat to Putin’s rule.

    Already, city authorities have approved a mass march for up to 50,000 people in central Moscow on Sunday. The march, expected to be far larger than the scheduled protest rally it replaces, will provide a powerful platform for Kremlin critics who suspect a government hand in Nemtsov’s death.

    Even officials in Putin’s government seem to sense the danger that the former first deputy prime minister’s martyrdom might pose, hinting darkly that Friday night's drive-by shooting may have been an deliberate "provocation" ahead of the planned weekend rally.

    A dynamic and debonair politician who spoke nearly flawless English, Nemtsov, 55, was an ardent proponent of liberal economic reforms and rose to national prominence as the popular governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region in the 1990s.

    Promising political career

    Once dubbed the "golden boy" of Russian politics in the media, Nemtsov was later named first deputy prime minister by then-President Boris Yeltsin, a move that many interpreted as the Russian leader’s bid to groom his heir to the Kremlin. 

    But Yeltsin handed over power to Putin, who then was elected president in 2000. Nemtsov became a vocal critic of the new Russian leader as the Kremlin moved to stifle critical media outlets and launched a campaign against wealthy Yeltsin-era oligarchs who refused to toe the government’s line.

    Nemtsov served as a deputy in Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, during Putin’s first term. He lost his seat in 2003 parliamentary elections in which the pro-Kremlin party United Russia seized an overwhelming majority. 

    In the ensuing years, he led an array of liberal-minded opposition movements and parties, and authored reports accusing Putin’s government of massive corruption.

    In 2013, Nemtsov released a report alleging that officials and businessmen had stolen up to $30 billion in funds earmarked to finance the 2014 Winter Olympics in his hometown, Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi.

    "It is obvious that Putin's friends are running the preparations for the Olympic Games," Nemtsov told RFE/RL at the time. "It is also obvious that one is reluctant to put his own friends behind bars. However, we cannot look at all this passively because the scale [of their activities] will only grow bigger. The embezzlement they are presiding over is not just some kind of children's game but a real threat to Russia's national security." 

    Meteoric rise 

    Boris Yefimovich Nemtsov was born in Sochi on October 9, 1959. He went on to study physics and earn his doctorate in 1985 at a university in the Volga River city of Gorky, now called Nizhny Novgorod, 250 miles east of Moscow. 

    In Gorky, Nemtsov first embraced political activism campaigning against the construction of a nuclear power plant in the region. In a 2013 interview with Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio, he said he was inspired by his mother, a pediatrician who was concerned about the safety of nuclear power.

    "Mama started collecting signatures, and I was getting scared that they would put her in jail, arrest her. So of course I was standing next to her to make sure no one touched her," he said.

    In 1990, at age 30, Nemtsov won a seat in the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Republic and later moved to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. 

    When a group of hard-liners in the Communist Party and KGB launched a coup attempt against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, Nemtsov hunkered down with Yeltsin at the Russian parliament building and stood next to the tank where Yeltsin made his famous speech to street protesters. 

    "I understood at that time that these were very important days for my country. And really it was the death of communism. We understood that very clearly. But we were romantic,” Nemtsov said in a 2011 interview with RFE/RL. 

    Pushed economic reforms

    Months after the failed coup, Nemtsov was named governor of Nizhny Novgorod by Yeltsin and was later re-elected. During his governorship, Nemtsov collaborated with other politicians to introduce privatization and market reforms aimed at reviving the industrial region’s economy. 

    By 1994, Yeltsin was already hinting that Nemtsov could one day run the country.

    "He has grown so much that you can already tip him for president," Yeltsin said of Nemtsov during a trip to Nizhny Novgorod that year. 

    Nemtsov’s meteoric rise continued, and in 1997 Yeltsin named him first deputy prime minister. He was 37.

    He joked at the time that his appointment was "like putting me in front of a firing squad," though he had already demonstrated a tendency not to back down from a fight.

    During a televised debate two years earlier, nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky had tossed a glass of orange juice in his face and Nemtsov tossed juice back at him.

    Nemtsov’s stint in the federal government proved short-lived, however, as Russia lurched toward a default in August 1998. He was demoted to deputy prime minister in April of that year and submitted his resignation days after the default, which Yeltsin accepted.

    'Reality looks much more serious' 

    Nemtsov went on to co-found the Union of Right Forces (SPS) political party in 1999, together with other former members of Yeltsin’s team. The party was inextricably linked to privatizations and reforms of the 1990s that many Russians reviled after suffering through multiple economic crises in the decade.

    He was elected that year to the State Duma on the SPS ticket, serving as deputy speaker in the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament.

    Four years later, however, the party failed to gain any seats in the Duma elections dominated by United Russia, prompting Nemtsov to embark on a career in “non-systemic” opposition politics.

    Nemtsov became a leader of opposition protests against Putin and his government and was arrested repeatedly by Russian riot police during demonstrations over the past decade. 

    Pro-Kremlin groups and media demonized him as a puppet of Western governments who was seeking to return the country to the economic and social chaos of the 1990s.

    In 2009, Nemtsov ran for mayor of Sochi but lost overwhelmingly to the Kremlin’s candidate in an election opposition activists claimed was marred by widespread fraud and manipulation.

    At one point during the campaign, an assailant threw ammonia in Nemtsov’s face. He later said he believed the attack was carried out by pro-Kremlin activists due to his criticism of the planned Winter Olympics in Sochi. 

    Assessment of Putin changed

    Nemtsov had initially offered guarded praise for Putin after Yeltsin appointed the former KGB officer to the post of prime minister in 1999, calling him a “very acceptable figure” for Russia’s liberals and a “capable, experienced, and intelligent person.”

    But he told Ekho Moskvy in 2013 that he had never supported Putin, noting that his mother told him to “never trust” a KGB man.

    He said Putin’s first four years in office – including the arrest of Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and authorities’ response to the 2004 terrorist attack on Beslan’s School No. 1 – turned him against the Russian president for good.

    Speaking to RFE/RL in 2011, Nemtsov said he, Yeltsin, and the former president’s team were “naive” to believe ending communism would mean “a great life in a few months." 

    “We believed that we would just dismiss communism and we'd be lucky,” he said. But unfortunately reality looks much more serious and much more complicated than we believed at the time." 

    With reporting by Reuters, AFP, BBC, Ekho Moskvy, The Moscow Times, The Wall Street Journal and


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    Comment Sorting
    by: JJ Joseph from: Peterborough
    February 28, 2015 3:30 PM
    There was no reason for Putin to be concerned about Nemtsov. His popularity in the polls was 0.0% - it couldn't have been lower. There's obviously something else at play here.

    by: Sergei
    February 28, 2015 2:53 PM
    An awful and shameful murder. The madman imperialist Putin - and any politician who cannot handle serious criticism - has to go.

    by: Gander from: Friday Harbor, WA
    February 28, 2015 11:45 AM
    Anybody who thinks Putin didn't do this is foolish. It's exactly as it appears to be. When the threats become too close, you eliminate them. I only hope the Russian people will see it this way. PUTIN is not the answer.

    by: Chris C from: USA
    February 28, 2015 11:32 AM
    In addition to general opposition to Putin's policies, Nemtsov was affiliated with two initiatives that have proven very, very irksome to Putin in recent days.

    The first is a "crowdsourcing" initiative to photograph and post online pictures of any military equipment and personnel travelling between the Rostov Military Region and the Ukraine. This is allowing observers worldwide to track vehicles from the Rostov depots directly into the Ukraine. The geo/time-stamped photos are obvious proof that Russia is the spine and the fist of the so-called "rebels."

    The other is even more important and it concerns advocating for conscripts who are being forced, often by being brutally beaten, into signing on as "contract soldiers" in the Ukraine. Many of these "volunteers" are speaking out about being forced to go to the Ukraine to fight and possibly die. Nemtsov was collecting together the facts of these "contract soldiers" for presentation to the Russian public.

    As Cicero asked of the Roman Senate, "Cui bono?" Who benefits from Nemtsov's death. The obvious answer is Putin.
    In Response

    by: Michael from: Ireland
    March 01, 2015 4:10 AM
    You have answered your own question - but wrongly - Cui bono? - obviously Putins enemies - watch TV and read the papers and see all the anti-Putin rhetoric.
    So in answer to the question - Cui bono? The answer is anyone who wants to put further pressure on Putin and Russia as it I wonder who that could be?

    by: JJ Joseph from: Peterborough
    February 28, 2015 11:25 AM
    Haha! This is great! Russia has ben really difficult to engage in war, so maybe this will be enough to get a good battle started! We need to declare war on Russia to keep the economy going. Escpecially, we need to have real combat between our F35 and their new 5th gen fighters. Hats off the the CIA for this really clever move (nobody expected this one).

    by: Jeff from: Canada
    February 28, 2015 11:14 AM
    Everyone seems to be skirting the the issue and ignoring the elephant in the room. Putin has a history of killing his opponents. It CANNOT be ignored that Nemtsov had proof that Putin started a war with Ukraine and Putin has been lying about it. Nemtsov was going to present that proof at the Sunday demonstration. That would have meant the end for Putin as leader of Russia. No one in the world has greater motivation to kill Nemtsov than Putin. No one in the world has the track record of killing his opponents, like Putin does. No one else in the world killed Nemtsov. And until the government in Russia changes and then charges Putin for this murder, no one else in Russia, who opposes Putin, will be safe.
    In Response

    by: Anonymous
    March 02, 2015 7:59 AM
    lol, I really doubt you know anything about KGB, most of the information wouldn't be public? I guess that speaks about character, delusional and absent minded with no grip of reality.
    In Response

    by: Vera from: Seattle, WA
    March 01, 2015 1:19 PM
    I'm completely agree with you. I know myself very well what kind of organization is KGB. Living in the former Soviet Union and being refusnik I know very well what kind of people are the KGB members. Definitely Putin hated Nemtsov, he was afraid Nemtsov would disclose Russian involvement in Donbas. It makes me very angry that leaders of free world knowing about Russian's presence in Donbas don't say anything, it looks they are blind and deaf. Putin is the worst liar of this era saying that miners and bus drivers won in Donbas. Only a crazy person can say this. How come these miners and bus drivers got grads, cornets, rockets, new tanks? Could these people produce and operate such sophisticated weaponry? Nemtsov wanted to tell Russians about all these on March 1, 2015, and Putin decided to stop him. The problem is that the free world doesn't understand the Russian mentality. 85% of Russian people act as zombie people supporting Putin's oppressive regime. Russian media and TV brainwashed their heads, and they began to hate US, European Union Countries, simply all peace loving people. They supported the occupation part of Georgia, Crimea, eastern part of Ukraine, and before this the part of Moldavia. Putin has to be stopped. His speaker at Russian TV (D. Kiselev) said that only atomic dust would remain from US. Western world has to understand at last that Putin is playing a very dangerous game. We have to stop him now.

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