Conspiracy theories abound as Russia mourns Boris Nemtsov

Vladimir Putin pledges investigation and says killing a ‘provocation’

Irish Times video journalist Enda O'Dowd reports from Moscow where the Russian people are mourning opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down on Friday close to the Kremlin. Video: Enda O'Dowd


It would take nerves of steel to conduct a Mafia style killing on the bridge near the heavily guarded Moscow Kremlin where a gunman shot dead Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition politician, late on Friday night before speeding away in a car.

Vladimir Putin has promised a full investigation of the crime that has removed one of his fiercest and most vocal critics from the Russian political scene.

But as conspiracy theories swirled on Russian social networks at the weekend many commentators were convinced that Nemtsov was the victim of a contract killing and his assassins would never be brought to justice.

Whether he intended to do so or not, Putin himself set the speculation going saying that the murder – coming on the eve of an opposition protest in Moscow – could have been intended as a “provocation.”

Russian investigators are examining various possible motives for the crime including whether Nemtsov was the victim of Islamist extremists enraged by his support for the French magazine Charlie Hebdo or if he had been sacrificed by groups trying to stoke unrest in the country.


For their part commentators in the anti-Putin camp have suggested that hardline nationalists, influenced by the relentless stream of state propaganda that demonises the opposition as traitors, might have decided to rid the country of Nemtsov in an act of fanatic patriotism.

In the same vein there is a theory that a Chechen hit man, like the one suspected of murdering Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist and arch critic of Putin, in 2006, could have been hired to deliver Nemtsov’s corpse to the Russian president as a present to celebrate the start of spring.

Against this murky backdrop, troubled times lie ahead for Russia, wrote Ksenia Sobchak, the Russian socialite and opposition activist, at the weekend.

“Hatred, like love, is impossible to control. It’s the most dangerous explosive element that lives by its own nitroglycerine laws.”

The Russian authorities who gave the opposition permission to stage a rally in Moscow to honour Nemtsov on Sunday probably calculated that the event that, even according to official estimates, drew more than 21,000 people on to the streets, would help lower the political temperature and deaden the shock waves reverberating across the country.

But the big question facing the Kremlin is whether the murder of Nemtsov will reinvigorate Russia’s opposition movement that has been weakened by an official clampdown on dissent.

Alexei Navalny, the charismatic opposition leader considered most capable of mounting a serious challenge to Putin, has faced a slew of legal charges over the last few years and, currently serving a 15-day sentence for handing out leaflets at a Moscow station, was unable to attend the Nemtsov memorial rally.

Russian state media, which has been swallowing up independent news outlets since the Ukraine crisis erupted, gave scant coverage to the rally or to memorial events taking place in other big cities.

“I don’t know if this tragedy will scare everyone even more and bring a final end to the opposition or whether it will encourage people to rise up and protest,” said Yuri, a Russian pensioner, who was laying flowers on the bridge where Nemtsov was killed. “I can’t say I agree with everything Nemtsov said, but the opposition is essential for the development of the country,” he added.


Nemtsov went into opposition after Putin came to power in 2000 and, although ceding the political limelight to the younger Navalny, has been a driving force in the Russian protest movement.

Nonetheless, Putin, whose approval ratings are still cruising near the record highs reached after Russia annexed Crimea a year ago, is unlikely to face an immediate political backlash in the wake of Nemtsov’s death, according to Dmitry Peskov, the president’s spokesman. “If we compare popularity levels ... Nemtsov’s was just a little bit more than the average citizen.”

However, Nemtsov’s murder, if left unresolved, could come back to haunt Putin who early on staked his political reputation on bringing order to Russia after the violent early years of capitalism in the 1990s.

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