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Was Boris Nemtsov Simply the Latest in a Long List of Putin-Critics Silenced by the Kremlin?

By Jennifer KimPublished March 13, 2015

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In the past few weeks, Russia has been reeling in the wake of the murder of prominent Putin-opposer Boris Nemtsov. Putin has since decried the killing, denying any hand in the attack-- but can he really be believed?
By Jennifer Kim, 03/13/15

Last Sunday, leading Russian opposition politician and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov was shot dead in Moscow. According to the police, an unidentified attacker shot Nemtsov in the back four times as he was crossing a bridge—right in view of the Kremlin. He died only hours after appealing for support for a march against the war in Ukraine.

President Vladimir Putin himself has denounced the murder as "vile", claiming that immediate investigations would be undertaken and that he would give the case his own, personal attention. According to the Kremlin, three law enforcement agencies have been ordered by Putin to investigate the murder. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has also since denounced the killing, calling it a "heinous crime that will be fully investigated". He has informed the UN Human Rights Council that President Putin has "immediately handed down all instructions and is ensuring special control over this investigation". He has, however, rebuffed outside influences on the investigation out of concern of political agendas, claiming that any "attempt to use the heinous killing of Boris Nemtsov for political purposes is despicable."

In support of Nemtsov, tens of thousands of people marched through central Moscow as well as thousands more in St. Petersburg. Many of them carried portraits of Nemtsov along with banners declaring "I am not afraid". The opposition march he had initially been gathering support for has thus transformed into a mourning rally, with Nemtsov's supporters accusing the Kremlin of involvement in the suspicious murder. Some of the marchers went so far as to chant "Russia without Putin!"

Just last year, during an interview with CNN, Nemtsov discussed the suspicious deaths of other Kremlin critics but stated that his fame offered some protection. As he stated during the interview, "I'm a well-known guy, and this is a safety because if something happens with me, it will be a scandal not only in Moscow city but throughout the world."

So is it likely that the Kremlin authorized the attack on Nemtsov? As likely as it seems, the answer is not a simple "yes". Current theories point fingers towards everyone from Putin, to a Putin associate, to even a third party irritated by Nemtsov's business activities.  Russian pro-democracy activist Garry Kasparov, a friend of the late Nemtsov, stated "I doubt it was a direct order from Putin, but it was this toxic atmosphere of hatred…it has been propagated by Russian television 24/7." On the other hand, another former friend and political colleague of Nemtsov's, Ilya Yashin, declared outright "It's clearly a political murder….I don't know who killed Boris, but I know that it's the government and personally Putin who are responsible for it."        

The Kremlin has also claimed a number of theories, including the suggestion that Nemtsov was murdered by his own political allies so as to create a martyr or stir up political strife. Some investigators have also alleged that the murder could have been "a provocation aimed at destabilizing the country". Since the attack, the Kremlin has also considered a number of other possibilities including Islamic extremism, "fierce Ukranian fields commanders like Dmitry Yarosh and Dmitro Korchinsky", and Russian ultranationalists

What is absolutely true is that outspoken critics of Putin in the past have also suffered miserable fates. In 2004, American journalist and editor of Forbes Russia Paul Khlebnikov was murdered in a machine gun attack outside of his office in Moscow. Known for his inquisitions into the corruption and intrigue of Russian politics and business in the 1990s, he was most famous—or infamous—for exposing the business empire of Kremlin kingmaker Boris Berezovsky. His case has never been solved. Two years later, Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist and strong critic of the Kremlin, was murdered outside her apartment building. While five men were found guilty of carrying out the attack last year, the contract killer was never identified. The same year, 2006, former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko was found poisoned. Litvinenko had previously accused Putin of corruption and pedophilia, and his death was allegedly caused by two former Russian security services men. The list goes on,and none of these cases have ever been satisfactorily resolved.

The likelihood that the Kremlin was behind Nemtsov's murder is high, both because of Russia's long history of suspicious deaths of Putin-critics as well as the Kremlin's ability to cover up even high profile cases like the ones formerly mentioned. Despite Nemtsov's belief that fame would provide some protection, his unceasing efforts against the Kremlin may have made it finally worthwhile to simply silence him and deal with the backlash through propaganda and multiple conspiracy theories. Yet, the possibility also still remains high that a supporter of Putin, rather than Putin himself, carried out the attack—or that one of the other many theories floating around may have some truth to them.