Boris Nemtsov: a cross-border troublemaker

This weekend thousands in Moscow took to the streets to remember opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead on a bridge just opposite the Kremlin 5 years ago. The murder, deemed political, was never solved. According to ngo White Counter 22.000 people took part, the police spoke about 10.000 demonstrators. Why was Nemtsov killed? Was he lobbying too hard in Washington, wonders research journalist Andrei Soldatov, author of The Compatriots.  

nemtsov mars moskou 29 febr 2019 foto jablokoSome 22.000 people in Moscow took part in a march commemorating the killing of Boris Nemtsov (picture Yabloko)

by Andrei Soldatov

Five years ago Boris Nemtsov, a prominent Russian opposition politician, was shot dead on the bridge, a stone’s throw from the Kremlin wall. He got four bullets into his back and died instantly.

In the corridors of the Kremlin Nemtsov was not remembered as the late 1990s deputy prime minister whom Boris Yeltsin didn't chose as his successor (in stead he favoured Putin), but as a politician who in the late 2000s and 2010s incessantly strolled the corridors of power in Washington DC and European capitals, succesfully lobbying for anti-Kremlin sanctions.

Apparently, it was Nemtsov who solved the problem which haunted Washington bureaucracy ever since the end of the Second World War: how to find a suitable role in Western relations with Moscow for Russian political groups abroad who opposed the Kremlin.

By the end of the Second World War pogroms, revolutions, civil war, Stalin repressions and Nazi occupation produced an emigration from the USSR on such a scale, that it could not be ignored by politicians in the West. Many of the émigré political organizations – from former aristocrats to Church leaders to Germany’s prisoners of war - moved to the US, so the Americans had to decide what to do about them.

Engaged in spying

Big names in US diplomacy were looking for a solution to this question, including George Kennan, the author of  the Containment concept, and his close associate George Fischer. The latter knew the Soviet regime from inside – he was the son of Louis Fischer, Moscow correspondent of The Nation - and went to school with Misha Wolf, the foreign intel branch founder of the East-German Stasi.

Over decades of the Cold War, the Americans and their allies tried almost everything with the Russian emigres – funding their political organizations and groups, engaging them in spying and enlisting them in propaganda behind the Iron Curtain. The Russian exiles and defectors also trained and taught the American military, spies and diplomats, trying to help them understand the increasingly inscrutable Kremlin regime. Fair to say, most of the efforts met with only limited success – the Soviet Union was far too closed, with the exception of radio waves, that also were partly jammed. But the Americans never stopped trying.

It was not purely exploitation - Kennan's National Security Council’s 1948 memo US Objectives with Respect to Russia stressed that if and when the communist regime collapsed, it was time to get 'all the exiled elements to return to Russia as rapidly as possible and to see to it, in so far as this depends on us, that they are all given roughly equal opportunity to establish their bids for power'.

As we state in our book The Compatriots that dream never came true. When the Soviet Union collapsed, some émigré organizations did return to the motherland, but they never played a substantial role in the internal political struggle in the new Russia.

In the early 2000s Putin re-introduced political emigration, and a new generation of Russian exiles was born. In those days many opponents of the Kremlin left Russia for good, but not Boris Nemtsov. A former protégé of Yeltsin, popular and flamboyant, he somehow survived politically, notwithstanding the Kremlin’s propaganda attack on the Yeltsin era, the 'wild nineties'  that in Putin’s narrative were responsible for everything that went wrong in Russia. But Nemtsov also had a good reputation in Western political circles.

In late 2007 he decided to combine these two factors. 

nemtsov mars petersburg 29 febr 2019 foto jablokoDemonstrators on February 29 2020 in Petersburg (picture Yabloko)

Lobby for sanctions

In December 2007 in eastern Moscow Boris Nemtsov went to the nineteenth-floor office of former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who had also fallen out with Putin and was trying to find his place in opposition politics. They talked for hours about opposition strategy for the upcoming elections when Nemtsov suddenly had an idea: to lobby for Western sanctions against important figures in Putin’s political regime.

As first target he proposed Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the Presidential Administration, and creator of the concept of 'sovereign democracy' [Surkov had in mind a form of democracy where the ruling elite calls the shots and opposition parties are destroyed. Later he was Putin's representative in charge of the war in the Ukrainian Donbass, till he was dismissed recently - ed.]. Surkov was also suspected to be behind nasty attacks on prominent opposition politicians, NGO activists and the UK ambassador, organized by pro-Kremlin youth. The attacks stopped after the British quietly told Surkov to behave, or they would refuse him a UK visa.

The sanctions were introduced first as the so called Magnitsky act, named after Sergey Magnitsky, lawyer of the British financier of American origin Bill Browder, who faught an embezzlement case for Browder's Hermitage Capital Investment Fund. Magnitsky was jailed and tortured to death in Butyrka prison. It was Browder's idea to sanction the Russian officials involved in Magnitsky's death but it was Nemtsov who lobbied to make the legislation 'open' i.e. to include an option to sanction not only those who had played a role specifically in Magnitsky’s tragedy, but any officials who violated the rights of Russian citizens.

Consequently the sanctions targeting the Kremlin and its allies were adopted by the US and adopted by Europe. Ever since, the Western sanctions have been a constant subject in Russian politics and a unrelenting pain in the ass – both for the Kremlin, and for many Western governments, not quite happy to risk their long-term relations with Russia for a hopeless cause. But given the present circumstances, they are here to stay, and unlikely to disappear in the near future.

Nemtsov's crusade

Nemtsov, shuttling between Russia, where he was seen marching at the head of protest rallies and sometimes in jail, and Western capitals, did his utmost to persuade Western politicians to support his sanctions crusade. He used to the full the possibility that his predecessors in Russian political dissent never had: the borders stayed open, so he could travel.

It was so unprecedented that it made some prominent American officials feel uneasy. To meet with a foreign politician, not an emigre in the old sense of the word, trying to influence US decision making regarding a nuclear superpower, was something that puzzled the Americans and some never warmed to the idea.

But Nemtsov created a precedent. He became a power broker in the West while living – and operating as an opposition politician - in his own country. In this he was so successful, that one should wonder if he was killed for what he accomplished at home or abroad. Other Russians now are following up, and that gives some hope.

Putin never tried to close the borders as his Soviet predecessors did. The reason most probably is that in this way he can push troublemakers out, but the result is that the country has become global as never before. Nemtsov was the first one to make good use of this in his opposition to the Kremlin. Did that in the end cause his death?

nemtsov mars 29 febr 2020Poster for the Nemtsov March on 29 February 2020 in Moscow: 'Don't be silent, don't forget!' 

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