Q&A: The death of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov
Written by William Foreman
ANN ARBOR—When Boris Nemtsov was gunned down last week, he became the most prominent Russian opposition figure to be killed during President Vladimir Putin’s 15-year rule.
The physicist turned politician was attacked while walking over a bridge near the Kremlin, just two days before he was to lead a rally.
There are already plenty of theories about possible motives and suspects: Islamic terrorists, conflicts in Nemtsov’s personal life or enemies the politician made in his efforts to expose corruption. Some conspiracy theories suggest that Nemtsov’s death was part of an opposition plot to make a martyr out of him and unify the splintered anti-Putin movement. Others suspect Putin was involved.
Nemtsov’s death raises serious questions about Russian politics and the general direction of the country. These issues and others were discussed in a Global Michigan interview with Ekaterina Mishina, a visiting professor of law at the University of Michigan.
Mishina studied law at Moscow State University and earned her doctorate from the Russian Academy of Sciences. She was an assistant to the chief justice of the Constitutional Court of Russia and was involved with projects with the World Bank, Ford Foundation, European Union and USAID.
Q: You had a chance to meet Nemtsov on several occasions. What was he like?
Mishina: He was fantastic. He didn’t look and act like a politician. He was too much of a human being. Even his enemies referred to him as a very decent person. He was never involved in any corruption. This is outstanding for a Russian politician because too many of them are deeply involved in numerous corruption schemes. As a politician he lacked one thing: He was not obsessed with power. For him, the future of his country meant more than his political career.
Another thing that was remarkable was that before he became a politician in the 1990s, the country was ruled by old and dying men from the Soviet era. The average age of a Soviet politician was 70 or 75 years old. Also, it was hard to find a high-ranking Communist Party official of non-Slavic origin. Boris Nemtsov was Jewish. He was one of the first appointees of Boris Yeltsin and that was unheard of—to promote to such a high governmental level a guy who was less than 30 years old, a guy who had almost no experience in politics and someone who was Jewish. Nemtzov was appointed the governor of the Nizhny Novgorod oblast, a failed region at that time. With the new governor, the Nizhny Novgorod oblast became a model region of Russian privatization with targeted social assistance and a high level of encouragement and protection for independent media.
Q: He was once being groomed to succeed Yeltsin. Why didn’t that happen?
Mishina: I think people who were close to Yeltsin decided Boris was becoming too dangerous because he was unpredictable and it was impossible to control him. He openly stayed away from all the corruption. He had outstanding communication skills, so he was the perfect negotiator, but he was always playing a fair game. When Yeltsin became old and unhealthy, people were taking unfair advantage of the situation. Nemtsov was too independent, too open and completely corruption-resistant. As a deputy prime minister, he was causing a non-stop headache to several oligarchs who had huge influence on Yeltsin at that time. In their view, he would not make a controllable member of the ruling clan.
Q: What does his assassination mean for Russia?
Mishina: The way he was killed showed that the people who did it felt absolutely safe and that they would go unpunished. They were untouchables. To kill the leader of the opposition near the Kremlin two days before an important political rally means these people knew what they were doing and they were well protected. I don’t think they will be found. Eventually, the investigation will find a scapegoat.
What happened could mean that Putin is losing control of the situation. If Nemtsov was killed without instruction or open support, it means that there are people who don’t care what the president of the country thinks about this. Another version of events may be that those who gave orders to kill Nemtzov were not directly instructed to do so but thought that the president might appreciate it. If Putin instructed or otherwise encouraged the killing, it’s also dangerous because it means that he really is in another world because he’s repeatedly and openly ignoring the universally established principles of human rights, the rule of law. They are all enshrined in the Russian constitution. But all these norms are not enforceable now.
Q: The opposition has been splintered and struggling to gain popular support. Might Nemtsov’s death help galvanize the movement?
Mishina: It depends on how strong the civil society in Russia is. I believe the Russian people are losing hope because they see that Putin is offering them a regime based on fear, hatred and nationalism. The two decades of democracy and the market economy were in vain.
Being active in the opposition movement involves a huge amount of danger of prosecution. The witch hunt has already started. The regime is accumulating compromising information on anyone who seems to be dangerous. Now the Russian opposition is trying to figure out the most efficient way to move forward. They are also evaluating the risks, which are much higher. A week ago, the risk would be criminal prosecution. Now it’s death.
Q: Nemtsov was only popular with a small minority of the population. Why was this?
Mishina: Over the past hundred years, Russia has experienced several waves of repression, which may have led to negative selection on traits such as aggression, cowardice and conformism. I really hate to say this but appreciation of an iron fist is deep inside our consciousness. Serfdom existed in Russia until 1861, and since that time many Russians still appreciate strong control. My students always ask me how come people tolerated Stalin. Many Russians adore strong power. They adore a strong leader. Such internationally recognized values as supremacy of human rights, separation of powers, rule of law were alien to Russians for ages. People have no appreciation for these things. They prefer stability, which can be guaranteed by a strong leader. They want Russia to be a great country.
Q: What advice would you give the opposition about next steps?
Mishina: I really admire these people who are strong enough, brave enough to oppose the regime. I would advise them to be safe and to have good defense attorneys. At the same time, I would tell them to keep their hopes up. If the society starts to lose hope, it means that Russia is a failed state. That would be devastating.