There’s an expression that the first rule in American politics is to “secure the base.” It means that in any election, political leaders need to make sure that their most committed supporters are enthusiastic, donate money, volunteer for the campaign, and turn out to vote. Mr. Putin has just reminded us that in Russia, politics works a bit differently. Securing your base in Russia these days means eliminating, by one means or another, your political opponents.
On the night of Saturday, February 27, a gunman shot opposition political figure Boris Nemtsov on a bridge in Moscow within sight of the Kremlin. Nemtsov was with a young Ukrainian model with whom he was carrying out a romantic affair. News agencies are now scrambling to disentangle his political endeavors from his extramarital activities and wondering if his personal life contributed to his death in some way. There has been no shortage of theories about responsibility for the killing: Islamist terrorists, a Kremlin hit-squad, an overenthusiastic Putin supporter, even the Russian opposition attempting to discredit Putin by “martyring” one of its own leaders. President Putin has announced his “personal control” of the investigation, so perhaps the truth will soon come to light.
But there are other truths that this killing forces us to confront. The first is the historical record. In Putin’s Russia, political opponents are fundamentally at risk. Consider the evidence:
- April 17, 2003, liberal politician Sergei Yushenkov was murdered near his home in Moscow hours after registering his party for the December parliamentary elections. Yushenkov, an MP in every Russian Parliament from 1989 to 2003, had been a strong advocate for reform, particularly of the Russian army.
- July 3, 2003, Yuri Shchekochikhin, an investigative journalist and a Russian MP died from symptoms related to radioactive poisoning. Shchekochikhin had written on organized crime and political corruption, accused Russian security forces of carrying out bombings blamed on Chechen terrorists, and put forward allegations of money laundering conducted by the Federal Security Service (FSB). Shchekochikhin died a few days before he was to fly to New York and meet with FBI agents.
- July 9, 2004, the American born journalist Paul Klebnikov, Russian editor for Forbes magazine, was shot in Moscow.
- May 30, 2005, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the richest men in the world, who had become a critic of corruption in Putin’s Russia was sentenced to nine years in prison for fraud and tax evasion. He was released in late 2013 after years of hard labor.
- October 7, 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, another investigative journalist and trenchant critic of Putin and Russia’s wars in Chechnya was shot in Moscow.
- November 23, 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, FSB whistleblower and defector, was killed by radioactive poisoning in London.
- November 16, 2009 Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who had accused police, tax officials, and members of the judiciary of fraud and corruption, died after being beaten in prison.
Which brings us back to Nemtsov, gunned down on a Moscow street hours before he planned to lead a protest march directed against Putin’s policy in Ukraine. The responsibility of President Putin for these killings is highly debated. If Putin has some involvement, there are two broad possibilities. Either the murders were approved by the president and committed on his orders, or they were the work of enthusiastic subordinates attempting to prove their loyalty without any direct order.
While the first may seem more likely in authoritarian systems, the second is not without precedent. Dictators have historically avoided direct responsibility for acts of political murder by providing a permissive environment for zealous supporters to carry out such acts without fear of serious punishment. Consider, for example, the killing of the socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti by Mussolini’s Blackshirts in 1924. Whether Mussolini ordered his killing or not has never been proven, but many historians agree that the environment of political violence and the absence of the rule of law that he created left him with the “moral responsibility” for Matteotti’s death. Regardless of the degree of Putin’s personal involvement in Nemtsov’s killing, it is yet another example of how the rule of law in Russia does not exist.
Russia’s operations in Ukraine have provoked an international response ranging from criticism to sanctions. While it’s becoming increasingly difficult for Russia to assert authority abroad in the face of economic sanctions, lower oil prices, and American-European cooperation, Mr. Putin’s policies within Russia, and perhaps within countries like Georgia and Ukraine, are likely to suffer most. He knows that it is extremely unlikely that external forces like sanctions or American pressure will force him out of power. The real threat is internal opposition. To that end, Boris Nemtsov is not the first casualty in this fight, nor will he be the last.
Novo’s opinions are his own and do not reflect the official policy or attitude of the United States Government or the Department of Defense.