After Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner Boris Nemtsov was gunned down Friday a few steps from the Kremlin, whodunit suspicions immediately fell on his greatest foe: President Vladimir Putin.
But the Russian opposition, which planned to hold an "anti-crisis march" led by Nemtsov and others on Sunday, hasn't blamed Putin for ordering the hit. Rather, leaders blamed Russia's chest-thumping leader for creating an atmosphere of patriotic hysteria and paranoia that inspired the killers who committed the drive-by murder.
"I have talked to my acquaintances who worked in special services, and I have less and less doubt that the killing of Boris Nemtsov is backed by the authorities," Vladimir Milov, an opposition-minded former deputy energy minister, wrote on his blog.
Democratic activist Dmitry Gudkov, who is the lone remaining opposition voice in Russia's parliament, told VICE News that he thought the killing was most likely done by "someone zombified by our television, which says that Nemtsov is an enemy of the people who is ruining our country on the orders of America."
As Moscow annexed Crimea and began backing pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine last year, Russia's national news channels, which are state-controlled, and other pro-Kremlin outlets have portrayed Kremlin critics as "fifth-columnists" that threaten national security.
In fact, the debut of a program called "Anatomy of a Protest 3," the latest in a series smearing Russia's opposition leaders, was planned for Sunday — until the channel NTV canceled it after Nemtsov's brutal killing. In recent months, protestors questioning Russia's role in the conflict in Ukraine have been confronted by "anti-Maidan" groups, who held their own pro-Putin march last weekend against "Western democracy" and values.
"Everyone needs to come to the conclusion that the Kremlin with its propaganda has crossed the line, a thin line that will lead to many casualties… This machine of hatred will turn against the regime itself," Gudkov said.
'Everyone needs to come to the conclusion that the Kremlin with its propaganda has crossed the line, a thin line that will lead to many casualties.'
An article by Ksenia Sobchak, a popular socialite and opposition-minded journalist, was widely shared Saturday in Moscow. Sobchak argued that Putin had "built a hellish terminator and lost control over it." She warned that the shots fired at Nemtsov were only the "first six bullets… because in a society degraded by mass propaganda, hatred will become the main engine and solution for all issues."
Despite their legendary cynicism, the shooting of Nemtsov, which occurred in one of the most monitored places in Moscow as he took a Friday evening stroll with a Ukrainian model named Anna Duritskaya, shocked many Russians. The shooting seemed to come out of the era that many thought had ended after critical journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in the entrance to her apartment building in 2006.
Hundreds came to lay flowers and commemorate the politician, who had been first deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin before he became an outspoken opponent of Putin. In recent years, Nemtsov published several reports on state corruption, including one on misspending in the preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, his hometown.
Opposition leaders canceled Sunday's "anti-crisis march" for government reform, which had been approved by city hall in a "sleeper region" far from the center, and instead will hold a memorial procession to the place Nemtsov was killed. Gudkov said the fact that city hall allowed the memorial procession — officials had initially said it couldn't be approved on such short notice — was a sign that "this murder scared the [political] elite more than anyone else."
But paranoid theories about Nemtsov's killing were already being pushed Saturday by pro-Kremlin voices. Although Putin expressed his condolences to Nemtsov's 86-year-old mother in a telegram, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the president considered Nemtsov's murder to be a "provocation," apparently directed against the Kremlin.
Russia's powerful investigative committee said it was looking into possible motives for the murder, highlighting the seemingly unlikely possibility that Islamists killed Nemtsov. According to committee spokesman Vladimir Markin, investigators had information that Nemtsov had been threatened over his support for the Charlie Hebdo journalists murdered in Paris. Kremlin outlet RT was quick to run with the Charlie Hebdo and Islamic extremism theories.
Markin also suggested the murder could have been a "provocation to destabilize the political situation in the country," in which Nemtsov served as a "sacrificial victim" for nefarious political ends. The mastermind could even have been someone connected with "internal Ukrainian events," Markin hinted ominously.
Experts quoted in state media were even more blunt in blaming Ukraine's government for organizing the murder of its supporter Nemtsov, with political analyst Pavel Danilin telling TASS news agency that "all that's going on is first and foremost advantageous for the Ukrainian intelligence agencies."
The popular online news channel LifeNews, known for its close ties to the Kremlin, quoted unnamed sources to argue that Nemtsov had been involved in a "domestic dispute" with his female companion over an abortion.
The question moving forward is whether Nemtsov's murder will galvanize Russia's stagnant opposition to take to the streets, or intimidate dissenters to stay indoors.
Mikhail Kasyanov, co-chair of the RPR Parnas party with Nemtsov, called on the democratic opposition and civil society to "consolidate efforts and oppose possible repressions." He argued Nemtsov's murder was a political hit meant to intimidate those "who are fighting tyranny and lawlessness in our country."
"Everyone knew it was bad and getting worse, but no one knew we were rolling toward the cliff this fast," Kasyanov said.
Former Deputy Economic Minister Ivan Starikov warned that the "time of protests with smiling faces, balloons and creative slogans is over," predicting further unrest as unemployment grew and inflation rose this year amid Western sanctions and low oil prices. He said he hoped the Kremlin would be forced to allow democratic elections and political reform.
Gudkov said the turnout at tomorrow's memorial procession "will reveal everything" about the opposition's future.
"Our task is to come out tomorrow and show that we're not afraid to come out in solidarity with our fallen comrade Nemtsov, to show solidarity with the friends and relatives who are also mourning him," he said. "Then we'll look at further steps."
Follow Alec Luhn on Twitter: @ASLuhn
Photo via Wikimedia Commons