Putin’s enemies within

Last Sunday, Ben Neal joined demonstration in Moscow in memory of the murdered opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. Here he discusses the politics of the demonstration – one of the largest in recent years – and what it reveals about the current state of opposition to Putin’s regime in Russia.

The spot where Nemtsov was murdered. The sign reads "Who's next?". Photo: Ben Neal
The spot where Nemtsov was murdered. The sign reads “Who’s next?”. Photo: Ben Neal

At least 50,000 people marched in Moscow last Sunday in memory of the slain liberal opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead two days previously on a bridge just steps away from the Kremlin. The assassin is currently unknown. The march replaced the planned “anti-crisis” opposition march, which was due to take place on the same day but in an out of the way suburb of Moscow.  That demonstration was to have been overtly political, even raising social demands which had previously been absent from the liberal dominated opposition movement. However, the resulting march was largely shorn of any political content, save that of mourning the loss of a popular yet controversial politician. Organisers explicitly requested that attendees refrain from carrying political banners and flags, aside from the Russian state flag, and also asked people not to shout slogans. The demonstration took place right in the centre of Moscow, and passed the spot near the Kremlin where Nemtsov was shot. Nevertheless, there were small groups of socialists, anarchists and others who ignored that request, and provided a lively contrast to the otherwise subdued and quiet mood of the march. They included a contingent from Open Left, a website connected to the Russian Socialist Movement, shouting slogans such as “No to terror! No to War!”, “The main enemy sits in the Kremlin!”, “Freedom, equality, fraternity!” and “Freedom to political prisoners!” Apart from being asked to be silent as they passed the spot of Nemtsov’s murder, they encountered no negative reactions, and many people in the vicinity joined in and even suggested slogans of their own. The group also distributed leaflets summarising their position on the killing.

“Patriotism? Inflation! Spirituality? Impoverishment! Unity? Cuts” Banner of the Open Left group. Photo: Ben Neal
Queer anarchist flags on the demonstration. Photo: Ben Neal
Queer anarchist flag on the demonstration. Photo: Ben Neal

Also present was a contingent of people calling for the release of Nadia Savchenko, the Ukrainian pilot who many say was abducted by separatists in Luhansk Oblast. She is now facing trial in Moscow for alleged involvement in the killing of two Russian journalists. It is widely believed that she is innocent and that Russian authorities have no right to hold her as she was on Ukrainian territory at the time of her abduction; the authorities maintain she was arrested on Russian soil after entering the country posing as a refugee. Nemtsov’s murder is currently under investigation, and a variety of theories are already circulating as to who was responsible, some more outlandish than others. What is clear is that it was a very well planned and professionally executed hit, and brazenly carried out in the immediate vicinity of the Kremlin, an area under some of the tightest security in Russia, watched 24 hours a day by guards and security cameras, where the slightest unsanctioned protest is stopped within minutes, and on a well-lit bridge crossing the Moscow river. Nemtsov had been with his girlfriend on his way home to his apartment on the south side of the river, an area of dark narrow side streets much more suited to someone wanting to carry out an assassination and get away with it. Whatever the truth behind this case, many of the people on the march were sure that it had something to do with the Kremlin or the security services, even if only a rogue faction of them. Meanwhile the authorities, while being careful to keep all options in the investigation open, are dropping heavy hints that a foreign security service, could be behind it – the Ukrainians perhaps?

Ukrainian flags on the demonstration. Photo: Ben Neal
Ukrainian flag on the demonstration. Photo: Ben Neal

In the 1990s Nemtsov was a leading figure in the government, first as governor of Nizhny Novgorod region, and then as a deputy prime minister in Yeltsin’s cabinet, and at one point was tipped to succeed Yeltsin as president. He was very closely associated with the introduction of the free market policies which all but destroyed the Russian economy at that time – the economic and social catastrophe was described as the worst one in peacetime in history. However around the turn of the century, as Putin became president, he fell out with the Kremlin and entered the ranks of the liberal opposition, although not abandoning his support for neoliberal economic policies. Throughout the 2000s he opposed corruption, the war in Chechnya, the falsification of elections, and more recently became an outspoken critic of Russia’s role in the war in Ukraine. At the time of his death he claimed to be about to publish clear evidence of Russian military involvement in that war. Officers of Russia’s investigating committee removed his computer and papers from his apartment after his death. Nevertheless he was a controversial figure for the left in Russia. Many resent him for his role in introducing the neoliberal policies of the 1990s, and precisely because of this, sections of the left, such as the Left Front and sections of the Russian Socialist Movement, were against participation in Sunday’s march. While the left has always been in a weak position, after the wave of protest in 2011-12 subsided, it has been marginalised even more by the liberal opposition, and is divided over the way forward, exacerbated by divisions over the events in Ukraine. One socialist activist who did take part, Alexander Lehtman, said:

Leftists in Russia have always considered him to be one of the leaders of the free market reforms of the 1990s, and hence to have some responsibility for the social catastrophe of the time. However, in my opinion, it was possible to agree with him on certain issues. For example, in the fight against corruption – he published quite interesting reports about corruption in Moscow and at the federal level. It was possible to agree with him on the struggle for fair elections and agree with him on his criticism of military action in Ukraine and the role of Russia in that.

The political fallout of Nemtsov’s killing remains to be seen. Some fear that if it did involve the Kremlin, it could signal a new and bloody turning point in repression of the opposition, with even visions of the purges of the 1930s being conjured up. For now though this is pure speculation. Since the protest wave of 2011-12, the Kremlin has sought to crack down on the opposition, jailing several activists on trumped up charges, prosecuting leading opposition figures such as the liberal nationalist Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov of the Left Front. In the last year, with the Maidan revolution in Ukraine and the subsequent separatist war in the Donbas, the level of propaganda has been ratcheted up considerably, with oppositionists in Russia, including Nemtsov, being denounced regularly as fifth columnists and traitors, and recently an “Antimaidan” movement has been founded, which includes a range of pro-Putin and right wing nationalist figures, which has the explicit aim of preventing a Russian “Maidan”. Many feel that Nemtsov’s death is one result of this increasingly nationalist and authoritarian atmosphere. Added to this is the economic crisis in Russia, with the collapsing price of oil, sanctions imposed by the West as well as by the Russian government on many food imports from the EU and USA, the crash in the rouble exchange rate, high inflation and the threat of worse to come. So far Russian society has remained largely quiet, and most people for now at least appear to passively support the Kremlin and believe at least part of the official line presented in the media. However, the situation remains volatile and unpredictable. Putin’s main strength is that under his rule the Russian economy stabilised, living standards and incomes went up, and life for ordinary Russians genuinely became better. That is now seriously under threat, leaving the government with only anti-western rhetoric to rely on.


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