What next for Russia after the killing of Putin critic Nemtsov?

Transcript of video recording with Professor Stefan Hedlund, Professor and Research Director at the Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies, at Uppsala University, Sweden.

Who killed Putin critic Boris Nemtsov and why?

Professor Stefan Hedlund:

Well, there are two background elements that need to be considered, one is that this was an extremely professional hit, was not just a drive-by shooting. There is likely to have been several teams involved and they had probably been following Mr Nemtsov to find an excellent location to do the hit. One person comes up the stair onto the bridge. A snow removal vehicle drives up to block the cameras. And a getaway car suddenly pulls up and gets the killer. So this is very professional.

The second is that it was done in a very high security area, very close up to the Kremlin walls, where there are lots of police both plain clothed and security forces on location with cameras.

So, the fact that it was done there was intended to send a message to somebody. So, that leaves the question of who sent that message in this professional fashion.

The official Russian version is sort of the usual suspect; the CIA agent saving to compromise Mr Putin or its Ukrainian fascists and these versions are not very credible.

Another version that is pretty extreme is that it was a hit ordered by Mr Putin against a leader of the opposition.

Mr Nemtsov was no longer a threat to Mr Putin and Mr Putin has been very careful in creating martyrs out of opposition leaders and so that is not very credible either.

That then leaves what may have been more credible namely that it was done by people out of the separatist movement in Ukraine that did not want Mr Nemtsov to pursue what was happening there or want to send a signal to Mr Putin that there is no retreat from what happened. That is one very plausible motive for the hit.

Another slightly less plausible but more worrisome is that somebody did this in order to send a signal to Putin that you may be on your way out, that somebody else maybe is wanting to take over. If that is true then it is truly frightening but that is not very likely.

What is the impact on the Russian opposition?

Professor Stefan Hedlund:

That’s a tough one. The immediate, I mean Mr Nemtsov was part of a group that was planning to hold a big opposition rally that likely would not have gathered very many people. After he was killed, that rally was transformed into a mourning for Mr Nemtsov that gathered maybe 50, maybe seventy thousand people.

So, the first impression is that the opposition has not reacted by falling into despair but by going onto the streets in very large numbers. And many people are being interviewed saying my fear has now gone, you can’t get any worse than this, so now we really have to stand up.

So, it is possible that this killing has galvanised the opposition and led them to renew their activities against Mr Putin and to support remaining leaders like Mr Navalny. But I am not very optimistic that this is the case.

It is true that Mr Putin has now a martyr to face, which he really does not like very much, but it is one thing to go into the streets and support a martyr, it is a very different thing to go into the streets against the regime, against Mr Putin, and risk the repression that is now bound to follow.

So I think that once the shock and the mourning of Mr Nemtsov’s killing has worn off, the opposition is going to be deflated and despair again, which is very sad.

What will happen next?

Professor Stefan Hedlund:

Well, the reaction from the Kremlin against this is going to be fairly obvious.

There is going to be more repression, tightening of the screws. They will clamp down even harder on the internet, they will clamp down even harder on remaining voices that are critical of the Kremlin and of the regime.

It is likely that, I mean, there was speculation that people like Mr Navalny, Alexei Navalny, and his brother who have been recently sentenced on completely idiotic charges, that they might be pardoned, that Mr Putin would use the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, which is upcoming, as the day of reconciliation and to pardon a number of people and defuse tensions in Russian society.

Whether those speculations were valid or not it is hard to say but they are definitely off the table now. We are going to see several years now of tightening repression from the Kremlin with a build up of regime critic from within that is going to increase the pressure in the pressure cooker. But it is very difficult to see any explosion anytime soon although the economy is turning sour and peoples lives are getting more depressed, it is not likely there will be any major blow out.

What is really troubling as a nation is that if the hit against Mr Nemtsov is a sign of disturbance within the ranks that people may be going for Mr Putin - then it is really dangerous so let us hope that this was not the case.

(Photo credit: dpa)

  • Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead in Moscow within sight of the Kremlin on the night of February 27, 2015.
  • He had served as the co-chair of the opposition Republican Party of Russia - People's Freedom Party - since 2012.
  • He was a liberal reformer, a nuclear scientist and environmentalist who rose to prominence under the Russian Federation's first President, Boris Yeltsin.
  • He was a vocal critic of President Vladimir Putin, denouncing him for Russia's part in the Ukraine crisis.
  • Mr Nemtsov was said to be gathering details about Russia's war dead in Ukraine and the risk they posed to Mr Putin's grip on power.
  • Along with fellow opposition figures Alexei Navalny and Garry Kasparov, a former chess grandmaster, Mr Nemtsov played a leading part in opposition marches in Moscow following Russia's controversial 2011 election.
  • 55-year-old Mr Nemtsov, father of four, was laid to rest on March 3. Thousands made their way to the Sakharov Centre, Moscow, a museum of Russia’s human rights movement, to pay their final respects before the burial at Moscow's Troyekurovskoye cemetery.
  • An estimated 50,000 marched through the capital on March 1 in Boris Nemtsov’s memory.