The Steep Price of Political Dissent in Russia

Ashby Henningsen, UMBC:

In the wake of Russian political dissident Boris Nemtsov’s killing on Feb. 28, observers from various corners of Russian society are scrambling for answers. The death of the opposition leader, which publicly unfolded in brutal fashion near the Kremlin, almost instantaneously provoked shock from the outside world, as well as suspicions from many concerning the possible role by Russia’s government. If history is to offer any indication, however, it may be that any inquiry as to the truth behind Nemtsov’s killing is unlikely to yield substantive results. If anything, this incident appears to follow a grim pattern of post-Cold War violent acts involving more vocal opponents to the Russian political system. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, advocates of greater political freedoms and government transparency have been stifled through various yet similarly violent murders. These attacks have often occurred with few attempts to definitively trace them back to their direct perpetrators. Yet like the case of Nemtsov, these previous killings have entailed troubling implications for political oppression in Russia. Already, Nemtsov’s killing is shaping up to appear as yet another anecdote in the narrative of risk against political opposition in Russia.

One would hardly be blamed for suspecting more than just a small degree of foul play involved in Nemtsov’s murder. As former Russian deputy prime minister, Nemtsov had built an extensive reputation as a vocal critic of President Vladimir Putin. Among many things, Nemtsov articulated popular grievances regarding government inefficiency, the prevalence of corruption within Putin’s government, and restrictions on individual political rights. Prior to his death, Nemtsov had even been compiling a case linking Russian military forces with the pro-Russian separatist movement in Ukraine, a connection that Russian officials have vehemently denied [1]. His outspoken challenge of Russian governance did more than elicit intense scrutiny from political elites; it earned him preeminent status among Russia’s political opposition Nemtsov therefore stood out substantially as a potential target of Russian government suppression. The exact nature of his murder provokes greater suspicion that high-level hostile designs were at play: Nemtsov was short four times from a moving car near the Kremlin, likely by professional hit men. It ought to come as no surprise, then, that fellow opposition figures have already accused the Kremlin of having a hand in their former proponent’s murder [2].

Additionally, Nemtsov’s killing follows a disturbing pattern, wherein open political dissidents to Russian political rule have met ruthless, and even deadly, ends. Over the past few years, a wide variety of incidents have illustrated the dangers that seem to assail those who speak too loudly or too harshly against the Kremlin’s leadership. Often, members of the media and political rights figures find themselves at highest risk. In 2006, professional assassins gunned down renowned Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskayain front of her home. Although no one was linked to her murder, many of her peers still harbor suspicions that her death was related to Russian political ire towards her coverage of fighting in Chechnya [3]. That same year, human rights activist Natalya Estemirova was murdered in Chechnya. Estemirova’s contemporaries have portrayed her killing as a product of the Kremlin’s desire to gloss over human rights violations in the war-torn region–the very sort of injustices which she had been investigating [4]. These are only some of the most notorious cases in recent years. According to data collected by Russian watchdog organizations, hundreds of journalists have been killed in the decades following the end of the Cold War [5]. The sheer volume of journalists’ killings would seem to support the notion that Russian media professionals place themselves at great risk of targeted violence by scrutinizing the country’s public officials.

Other cases of suspected Russian political suppression suggest that Moscow may resort to yet-more extreme lengths to silence criticism and root out its sources. Particularly, unresolved incidents involving more politically-grounded figures suggest that not even high-profile dissidents may be safe from harm if they push the limits of acceptable critique too far past the Kremlin’s standards. In 2013, former Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky was found dead while in self-imposed exile in England. Though his death was thought by some to be consistent with a suicide attempt (he was found hung in his bathroom), others continue to suspect that Berezovsky’s tense personal relations with Putin played a large role in his death [6]. In 2006, former KGB spy-turned-whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko directly accused Putin of causing his slow death via radiation poisoning. The extreme accusation gained credibility when a British investigation found that two former KGB agents were directly responsible for poisoning Litvinenko with polonium, a radioactive element [7].

Yet perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of Nemtsov’s demise lies in one last striking similarity with these previous cases: the unlikelihood that the full truth will ever be uncovered. Despite the possibility of ties between the aforementioned killings and a deliberate intent to harm from the Kremlin, investigations failed to indisputably reveal such direct connections. Likewise, many have expressed skepticism that Nemtsov’s murder will be completely solved. Though no proof exists to verify, many allege that the government has an incentive to avoid looking too intently into the matter. Even if the government does in fact enjoy complete innocence concerning Nemtsov’s death, investigators may be pressured into largely symbolic measures simply to avoid the possibility that the killing was politically connected. Additionally, the Kremlin has no desire to see Nemtsov’s death serve as a rallying point for his fellow dissidents [8]. The current weak state of Russian political opposition as a whole further diminishes the possibility that questions will lead to answers. With Putin enjoying a strong wave of public support from Russian citizens, it presently appears improbable that the public will ardently and persistently demand a full-fledged and transparent investigation [9].

For now, there is little in the way of concrete evidence revealing exactly who orchestrated Boris Nemtsov’s murder, and for what reasons. Given Moscow’s interest in seeing both domestic and foreign scrutiny slowly fade, it is highly unlikely that such uncertainties will ever reach closure. Yet, one cannot ignore the similarities that this incident shares with others before it. Public opponents of the current regime have been ruthlessly targeted and killed, but demands for the truth from colleagues and fellow activists have come up short. This pattern of focused violence against political dissidence and scrutiny has struck not only media and political figures; it has stunted the development of a civil society that could vocally challenge the country’s public sector in uninhibited fashion and pressure it into lasting reforms. At the moment, one might only be able to say that Nemtsov’s name risks becoming another statistic.

Sources:

[1]:http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/02/russian-opposition-leader-nemtsov-shot-dead-moscow-150227220848302.html

[2]:http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/russian-opposition-leaders-see-kremlin-links-to-nemtsov-murderrussian-opposition-leaders-see-kremlin-links-to-nemtsov-murder/2015/02/28/1626f9b2-bed6-11e4-9dfb-03366e719af8_story.html

[3]:http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-News/2009/1007/slain-russian-journalist-anna-politkovskaya-symbol-of-threatened-press

[4]:http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2009/0716/p06s06-woeu.html

[5]:http://journalists-in-russia.org/jir/

[6]:http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2013-04-04/the-mysterious-death-of-russian-oligarch-boris-berezovsky

[7]:http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/01/28/with-his-dying-words-poisoned-spy-alexander-litvinenko-named-putin-as-his-killer/

[8]:http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2015/0302/Nemtsov-joins-long-list-of-those-assassinated-in-post-Soviet-Russia

[9]:http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/02/putins-power-unchallenged-by-murder/386480/

 

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