Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, an outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin, was shot and killed late Friday in the shadow of the Kremlin only two days before he was to speak at a major anti-government rally.
Putin quickly condemned the killing and took personal control of the investigation, according to his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. He said it may have been intended as a provocation ahead of the opposition march set for Sunday.
Nemtsov, 55, was shot four times in the back from a passing car as he walked with a female friend across a bridge in central Moscow about 11:40 p.m., the Interior Ministry said. At least seven shots were fired by several assailants. His companion was not hurt.
In the aftermath of the brazen assault, near one of the most heavily guarded areas of Moscow, the colorful onion-domed spires of St. Basil loomed above the bridge where Nemtsov’s body lay under a sheet of plastic.
His lawyer. Vadim Prokhorov, said Nemtsov had told police about threats he had received on social networks, but authorities did nothing to protect him.
President Obama said the United States “condemns the brutal murder” of Nemtsov, and he urged the Russian government “to conduct a prompt, impartial, and transparent investigation into the circumstances of his murder and ensure that those responsible for this vicious killing are brought to justice.”
He called Nemtsov “a tireless advocate for his country, seeking for his fellow Russian citizens the rights to which all people are entitled.”
“I admired Nemtsov’s courageous dedication to the struggle against corruption in Russia and appreciated his willingness to share his candid views with me when we met in Moscow in 2009,” Obama said in a statement. “We offer our sincere condolences to Boris Efimovich’s family, and to the Russian people, who have lost one of the most dedicated and eloquent defenders of their rights.”
The killing of the brash, sharp-tongued Nemtsov, who had served as first deputy prime minister under the late President Boris Yeltsin, quickly dominated Russian-language social media and Twitter posts, most taking on a decidedly political coloration.
State TV stressed that Nemtsov was slain while walking “with a young woman who was born in Kiev,” the capital of Ukraine, Agence-France Presse tweeted.
As co-chair of the RPR-PARNAS political party and one of the leaders of anti-Kremlin Solidarnost movement in Russia, Nemtsov was particularly outspoken regarding the leadership in the Kremlin..
“I’m afraid Putin will kill me,” he told the Sobesednik blog two weeks ago in an interview, citing his activism. Regarding the Russian president, he added: “I couldn’t dislike him more.”
The Russian interior ministry quickly attempted to reassure Russians that Moscow police were trying to catch the killers, Interfax reported. The state-run news agency said investigators were studying surveillance video and had identified license plates of a vehicle in which Nemtsov’s killer escaped.
A police source said it appeared to be a “contract killing.”
Quoting an unidentified source, Interfax said authorities were looking at various theories for the murder “ranging from political activity to personal enmity.” The source also suggested that the killing could be an “act of provocation” in the run-up to Sunday’s opposition rally.
Ilya Yashin, one of Nemtsov’s colleagues in the RPR-Parnassus party, was among the first to confirm Netmsov’s death, the BBC reports.
“Unfortunately, I can see the corpse of Boris Nemtsov in front of me now,” he was quoted as saying by Russia’s lenta.ru news website. “At the Bolshoy Zamoskvoretsky Bridge. I see the body and lots of police around it.”
Opposition figure Mikhail Kasyanov, a former Russian prime minister, said he was shocked.
“In the 21st century, a leader of the opposition is being demonstratively shot just outside the walls of the Kremlin!” Kasyanov told reporters as police removed Nemtsov’s body as the Kremlin bells chimed. “The country is roiling into the abyss.”
He said the Sunday march would proceed. Others said it would be even bigger as a result of the assassination.
Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion who from the United States has been a leading opposition figure, said he was “devastated” by his colleague’s murder, noting that he hit four times — “once for each child he leaves.”
“Boris’s quality no longer fit Putin’s Russia,” he tweeted. “He always believed Russia could change from inside without violence; after 2012 I disagreed.”
In the early 2000s, Nemtsov founded a liberal opposition party but it failed at the polls. He briefly dropped out of politics, focusing on business and aiding opposition forces in Ukraine. He also wrote about corruption in Russia and the enrichment of Putin’s rich and powerful inner circle, known as the Oligarchs.
Moscow and Kiev have been locked in a dangerous political and territorial battle since the Ukrainian opposition toppled Viktor Yanukovych, the elected, pro-Russian president last year. Pro-Moscow rebels have been battling Ukrainian troops for control of eastern Ukraine. Putin has denied arming the rebels or fighting with them, despite reports of Russian troops and armaments across the border.
Nemtsov supported Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 and became an economic adviser for Viktor Yushchenko, who ousted the presidential candidate backed by Yanukovych. In 2008, Nemtsov helped create the Solidarity movement that deposed Yanukovych.
Nemtsov believed that Putin wanted revenge, fearing a pro-Europe Ukraine posed a threat to his power.
“He lies in revenge for Ukraine’s revolution, when Ukrainians took to the streets and dethroned the corrupt thief President Yanukovich. He is afraid it could be repeated in Russia. And, besides, he thinks if Ukraine is successful on the European path it is a threat to his own power,” he told the U.S.-government-backed Voice of America during a September interview.
That same month, he wrote an op-ed in the Kiev Post titled, “Why does Putin wage war with Ukraine?”
Nemtsov, a nuclear scientist and environmentalist, was long in the forefront of political upheaval in Russia as one of the earlier young economic reformers. He won the post of governor of the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast in 1991 at the age of 32.
Home to military industries, the region became a showcase for foreign investment after the fall of communism, and the media-savvy Nemtsov — who spoke fluent English — quickly became one of the country’s most prominent and influential politicians.
But the economic crisis of 1998 cost him his job, tarnished his reputation and dashed hopes that Yeltsin would anoint him as his successor. Instead, the presidential scepter was passed to Putin.
Source: USA Today