OBITUARY: Nemtsov's death and the opposition's failure to change the regime

By bne IntelliNews March 2, 2015

Ben Aris in Moscow -


This is so depressing. First a proxy war that has expanded into the worst geopolitical showdown in 20 years. Then a crisis that has led to stagnation and a steep fall in the ruble. And now the murder of one of Russia's best-known opposition politicians. Russia is not a happy place today.

The last time I sat down with Boris Nemtsov was in October 2010 when we had a long conversation about the future of Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin had been in power for a decade and Nemtsov had just released a damning report accusing him and his cronies of fleecing the country.

I had followed Nemtsov's career for more than a decade and a half since he sprang to prominence as the dynamic liberal governor of Nizhny Novgorod in the 1990s. This time we met in his extremely modest office on the small, leafy Zoologicheskaya Ulitsa, across the road from the Moscow City Zoo. Outside were some young activists practising slapping large protest stickers over the windscreens of a moving car – what they intended to do to drivers who were breaking the law.

The office was a classic Russian apartment on the first floor bare of anything other than a few cheap chairs and a desk with a computer. A bunch of people were smoking in the kitchen. Nemtsov looked out of place. He was a tall, well-built man with a penchant for designer jeans and expensive leather boots. He commanded the room with his rugged good looks, deep basso voice and emanated a powerful charisma. But he looked out of place in an office that was obviously not somewhere he spent a lot of time – it was devoid of personal touches, paperwork or the detritus of a normal work routine.

Nemtsov was obviously a sincere opponent of Putin and proponent for radical reform. He had just released a report, "10 years with Putin", that was filled with chapters like "Corruption is Eating Russia Up", "The Country is Dying Out", "Dead-End in the Caucasus", and "A country of screaming inequality".

It was promptly banned by the authorities on the risible grounds that it was "extremist literature". Most of the report was a dull statistical account of Russia's economic development over the previous decade, all of it scrupulously researched and based on official statistics, even if it lacked the shocking insider-dealing details that investor-turned-Kremlin nemesis Bill Browder used to dish up when still living in Moscow.

Throughout the years, Nemtsov's message did not change; his complaints then were the same as those he made on the eve of his assassination: "After 10 years, the people are tired of Putin. One of his key claims to success is that he has ended the instability in the North Caucasus, but during his regime the number of terrorist attacks has gone up six-fold," Nemtsov told me. "At the same time, the corruption in Russia is on a par with Africa."

After talking we travelled across town to the square by the Chistye Prudy metro where Nemtsov sat at a small trestle table to sign copies of his report. A queue quickly formed of people that included not just impoverished babushki who have borne the brunt of the Soviet collapse, but also middle-aged men carrying children, teenage girls who whipped out digital cameras to snap a selfie with Nemtsov and a knot of Asiatic men, probably Kazakh as the embassy is just round the corner – normal people basically. Nemtsov scrawled his name in the report's flysheet and reduced one old woman to schoolgirl giggles as he bantered with the small crowd. Two policemen on the other side of the square looked on, but did nothing despite the fact that distributing the report was technically illegal.

While we were there, Nikolai Alekseev, one of the leaders of Russia's Gay Pride movement, turned up wearing a smart tan suit. He had come directly from a court hearing following his arrest a week earlier for organising an unsanctioned gay pride rally. Alekseev and Nemtsov were already acquainted and their movements loosely aligned against Putin.

Alekseev's hearing had been adjourned, but he was eventually fined RUB15,000 ($50). Nemtsov was also no stranger to arrest and fines as part of his Charter 31 meetings, amongst many other protest activities (the number refers to the article in the constitution that guarantees the right of assembly, which is routinely denied by the authorities).

Why has the Russian opposition failed?

It seems that Nemtsov had everything to challenge Putin: the looks, the brains (a PhD in Physics), the oratory skills and most importantly – and almost uniquely amongst the opposition leaders – the experience: he was appointed a first deputy prime minister in 1997 by former president Boris Yeltsin, who also said Nemtsov was a potential presidential replacement.

So why didn't Nemtsov become president? In fact, why are all Russia's opposition leaders doing so pathetically in the polls as the recent bne:Chart, "Putin re-election a forgone conclusion", so clearly shows. The independent pollster Levada Center reaffirmed the opposition’s poor showing on February 27; only 15% of Russians support opposition leaders of any hue, including Nemtsov. Putin's popularity remains ridiculously high.

Nemtsov, like most other opposition leaders, failed to connect with the common man. His association with Yeltsin, which gives him so much creditability in the West, is a distinct disadvantage in Russia where the majority of people associate the 1990s with economic misery and the rise of government-sponsored kleptocratic oligarchs. Nemtsov's money and business connections also set him apart as belonging to the elite. His cheap apartment on Zoologicheskaya Ulitsa jars with the high-end Bosco restaurant where he dined with Anna Duritskaya, a 23-year-old Ukrainian model, on the night of his death.

Nemtsov was clearly a sincere opposition figure and liberal reformer who worked tirelessly since he quit his job in the executive a few days after the 1998 ruble crisis erupted. But he was no Nelson Mandela figure either.

Tainted liberals

Nemtsov was the star "young reformer" of the 1990s, rising through his dynamic efforts to reform Nizhny Novgorod where he previously studied physics before being made regional governor by Yeltsin. The late president then brought him to Moscow – a bad thing for a would-be presidential candidate.

"He was one of the brightest and most dynamic of the team of reformers at that time including Yegor Gaidar who passed away a few years back. Those reforms ultimately failed, and ended in Putin's rise to power in 1999," says Tim Ash, head of emerging market research at Standard Bank. "Nemtsov struggled to regain popularity across Russia due to Russians' memories of the failed reforms under Yeltsin and a widespread impression that they benefited only oligarchs and the West ultimately by further weakening Russia."

Another problem today's opposition leaders face is that many of them have been tainted by corruption allegations. Fellow opposition heavy hitter and former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov was dubbed "Misha 2%" while serving as finance minister, for allegedly earning a commission each time he changed the order Russia intended to pay off its Soviet era debts.

Duma deputy and member of the Just Russia parliamentary fraction Ilya Ponomarev is another leading light in the opposition (the only member of the Duma to not vote in favour of the annexation of Crimea last year). But he is also tainted by association with oligarchs – he used to work in the IT department at the oil company Yukos of Mikhail Khodorkovsky between 1996 and 1998, during that oligarch’s notorious corporate governance abusing period. More recently, Ponomarev was caught up in a lecture fee scandal after accepting $750,000 from the government-sponsored Skolkovo foundation in fees.

Nemtsov was tainted by the same sort of allegations. He was embroiled in a book fee scandal in 1997 along with another leading "young reformer" Anatoly Chubais, when the investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a telephone transcript allegedly showing Nemtsov asking for a $100,000 book advance. More recently, in the noughties Nemtsov explained an income of several million dollars as coming from speculating on soaring Gazprom shares after the so-called ring fence was removed, special rules that precluded foreign investors from owning the stock directly. This is despite the fact that Nemtsov had been an academic in the 1980s and was a public servant until 1998 and a politician ever since.

Nemtsov also suffered from his close association with several of the leading oligarchs from the 1990s. One of his first political parties – the Union of Right Forces (SPS) set up in 1999 together with other former members of Yeltsin’s team – was closely linked to the privatizations of the 1990s, a time when the oligarchs were resisting Putin's attempts to rein them in. In particular Alfred Kokh was the head of the State Property Committee when Norilsk Nickel was privatized in oligarch Vladimir Potanin's favour during the notorious loans-for-shares scam, and went on to become SPS' campaign manager. Likewise, Khodorkovsky is on record as one of the financial backers of SPS. A prominent club promoter told bne IntelliNews during this period that he organised several parties at Potanin's dacha, attended by Nemtsov, that consisted of "a DJ, a PA and a whole lot of girls." Potanin's former aide de camp, who went to work for Sberbank, confirmed these stories separately.

In this light, Nemtsov is seen by Russians as less of an icon of probity and more like an Eastern Europe politician cut from the same cloth as former Ukrainian prime minister and Orange Revolutionary leader Yulia Tymoshenko – dubbed the "gas princess" for her murky ties to the corrupt gas trading business despite her liberal credentials.

In Russia corruption allegations are not necessarily a death knell for a political career, because graft is deeply woven into the fabric of Russian public life, from the imperial era through communism and to the present day. All the people of Eastern Europe, not just Russia, expect their leaders to steal. The West hates Putin partly because of the allegations that he has stolen massive amounts as well as enriching his friends. But what it misses is that Putin's popularity is based on the massive rise in incomes over the last decade. Given the legacy of centuries of corrupt autocracy, Russians simply don’t expect anyone, including opposition leaders, to do anything different.

Missed opportunities

Russia's opposition has had many opportunities to take the lead and prove their credentials to the people. Unfortunately most of these have been fluffed. In the 1990s, the early opposition leaders such as Grigori Yavlinsky and Irina Khakamada vied with each other for the mantle of Russia's liberal alternative to Yeltsin. However, internecine fighting and intellectual arrogance prevented them from ever working together, relegating them to the fringes of the political spectrum and eventual obscurity.

This was the community out of which Nemtsov emerged, however he too was a victim of the intensely fissiparous nature of liberal politics and ended up being a member of a dizzying number of parties and movements during his long career.

The young reformers were given a golden opportunity to make a material change to the way that Russia was run at the end of Yetsin's administration. In 1997 Nemtsov was elevated to first deputy prime minister along with Anatoly Chubais, who was put in charge of the electricity giant UES. At the start of 1998, Yeltsin created a “dream team” by appointing Sergei Kiriyenko as prime minister. But this group had no time to make a difference, as by August that year the country went into financial meltdown. Nemtsov quit the government soon after.

The next best chance of a liberal alternative appeared in 1999 when then Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former prime minister Evgeny Primakov joined forces to fight against the government of then prime minister Putin, creating the Fatherland-All Russia party to stand in the 1999 parliamentary elections. Going into the polls, the new party had a decent chance of actually taking power. However, the vote was fixed by the active lobbying of oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who at the time was the main agent promoting Putin, and the party was eventually hijacked by the Kremlin to become the now ruling and Kremlin-backed United Russia party.

Since then, new players have come to the fore, most notably corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and former chess world master Gary Kasparov – both of whom have come from outside the system. But neither of them has managed to capture the popular imagination or unite the fractious liberal opposition around any sort of meaningful platform. As time goes on, ousting Putin becomes increasingly difficult because he's so entrenched. Now the economy is in decline, Putin has replaced rising incomes with a rising sense of national pride. For all his many flaws, Putin has proved himself to be a consummate politician with a fine sense of what the Russian people want. Quashing the opposition's access to any kind of platform to voice their views has obviously helped.

The entire spectrum of conspiracy theories have been put forward as to who is behind Nemtsov's killing, from Islamic terrorists through the CIA and on to a personal order from Putin. It has even been suggested that Nemtsov's murder is analogous to Stalin's assignation of Kirov that cleared the way for his purge, the Terror of the 1930s, and three decades of despotism. The trouble with all these theories is that Nemtsov, and all the other opposition leaders, are simply not important enough that his death will make much material change to Russia's domestic politics. The failure of the opposition to unite in the late 1990s or the early years of Putin's reign has meant the opposition appeal has progressively atrophied.

But whoever killed Nemtsov, Putin and his government must share some of the blame. As New York University professor Mark Galeotti wrote in his blog: "My working hypothesis is that Nemtsov was killed by some murderous mavericks, not government agents, nor opposition fanatics. But the reason they felt obliged to go and gun down a frankly past-his-peak anti-government figure is highly likely to be precisely because of the increasingly toxic political climate that clearly is a product of Kremlin agency."

Nemtsov's death presents the opposition with another opportunity to get its act together. Ex-PM Kasyanov told bne IntelliNews during the funerary march for Nemtsov on March 1 that his death was a "wake-up call" for the people and pointed out that all three of the major opposition parties were present at the demonstration to honour Nemtsov.

Moreover, with the economy stagnant, Putin is more vulnerable than at any other time in his 15-year rule. The euphoria of Russia's resurgence on the world stage will wear off eventually and Putin will need to return the country to growth to maintain his popular appeal. This chance for the opposition has been paid for in blood and while that will drive the wedge in Russian politics in deeper, it is probably not enough to incite the people to act.


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