Nemtsov's killers may never be found

Nemtsov's killers may never be found
A visitor holds a photo at the site where Boris Nemtsov was recently murdered, in central Moscow, February 28, 2015.

RUSSIAN President Vladimir Putin claims to be sparing no effort to identify the culprits behind the killing of prominent opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down in the centre of Moscow last Friday and was laid to rest in an emotional funeral yesterday.

But if the Russian track record of similar investigations is anything to go by, the search for Mr Nemtsov's assassins will soon get hopelessly bogged down in a welter of irrelevant accusations and false leads.

Not one of the dozen assassinations of other prominent Russian government critics over a decade has led to the arrest and conviction of any culprits.

Soon after the shooting, Mr Putin made public a letter he sent to the 86-year-old mother of the slain politician, in which he pledged that "everything will be done so that the organisers and perpetrators of this vile and cynical murder get the punishment they deserve".

But opposition leaders who had hoped that this indicated a real departure from Russia's ineffectual criminal investigation procedures were quickly disappointed.

For both the authorities and the government-controlled media gave credence to different murder conspiracies, while never once referring to the possibility that Mr Nemtsov, a fierce critic despised by the authorities, may have been liquidated by criminal elements connected to the government itself.

President Putin laid the ground rules for the investigation when, shortly after Mr Nemtsov was killed, he blamed the murder on a "provocation" aimed at destabilising the country.

The concept of a provocation or "provokatsiya" as it is called in Russian, the suggestion of a hoax designed to embarrass the authorities, is a particular favourite of Mr Putin, who as far back as 2012 has claimed that a leader of the opposition might be targeted for assassination.

"They are looking for a so-called sacrificial victim among some prominent figures," he said at an electoral rally that year.

"They will knock him off, and then blame the authorities for that," he added.

The idea that the opposition would murder its leader in order to put the government in difficulty has its adherents in conspiracy-prone Russia.

Meanwhile, Mr Vladimir Markin, spokesman for the specially created Investigative Committee into the murder, announced that police are also probing whether the killing had an "Islamic extremist trace" or "whether it is linked to the conflict in Ukraine".

The authorities provided no clues as to why such leads are being pursued, but the suspicion is that the selection of alleged culprits is politically motivated.

The mention of "Islamic extremists" may be designed to remind ordinary Russians that Mr Nemtsov was Jewish, while the reference to Ukraine is intended to recall that Mr Nemtsov's girlfriend, who was with him when he was gunned down last Friday, is a Ukrainian citizen.

Neither Jews nor Ukrainians are viewed favourably in Russia now.

The state-controlled media is doing its bit to confuse the investigation even further.

Attention is either lavished on Mr Nemtsov's private life and the possibility that he was murdered by a former lover, or on his latest girlfriend, a model now depicted in the Russian media in various lurid poses.

And if this was not enough, there is the usual string of Russian inexplicable mysteries.

Mr Nemtsov was gunned down near the Kremlin, the seat of the Russian government, a few hundred metres away from President Putin's own offices.

The area is not only teeming with uniformed and plainclothes policemen, but also sports hundreds of CCTV cameras.

Yet according to the authorities, all the cameras were either "switched off for repair" or trained on the Kremlin wall rather than the streets.

An "unfortunate coincidence", as a government official explained, straining to keep a straight face.

Either way, the only footage of the crime is a grainy picture from a considerable distance which reveals absolutely nothing.

As an opposition activist aptly put it: "Russia is the country where each political murder is the 'perfect murder'."

It is highly unlikely that either Mr Putin or his immediate entourage ordered or connived in the killing, if only because Mr Nemtsov was a nuisance rather than a threat to the regime.

But there are plenty of other potential perpetrators, such as the private militia of Mr Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya, an autonomous Russian region, who has sworn to defend Mr Putin against attacks; Russia's large number of nationalist gangs; or members of the Kremlin's own security services, keen to curry favour with their bosses.

Thus, Russia's real task is not only to find Mr Nemtsov's killers, but also to tone down the culture of violence which permeates the country's life, one in which politicians frequently call for the "elimination" of their opponents.

Yet that's a tall order.

A far more likely outcome is that the investigation file on Mr Nemtsov's murder will join those of previous political assassinations, all of which are now gathering dust in the Russian police's archives.

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com


This article was first published on Mar 4, 2015.
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