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Could Nemtsov Threaten Putin in Death as in Life?

FILE - Boris Nemtsov addresses supporters during a protest rally in Moscow, May 6, 2013.
FILE - Boris Nemtsov addresses supporters during a protest rally in Moscow, May 6, 2013.

With the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, gunned down on a Moscow street, the fiercest critic of President Vladimir Putin has been removed from the political stage. But it remains to be seen whether, in death as in life, Nemtsov will remain a threat to Putin’s rule.

Already, city authorities have approved a mass march for up to 50,000 people in central Moscow on Sunday. The march, expected to be far larger than the scheduled protest rally it replaces, will provide a powerful platform for Kremlin critics who suspect a government hand in Nemtsov’s death.

Even officials in Putin’s government seem to sense the danger that the former first deputy prime minister’s martyrdom might pose, hinting darkly that Friday night's drive-by shooting may have been an deliberate "provocation" ahead of the planned weekend rally.

A dynamic and debonair politician who spoke nearly flawless English, Nemtsov, 55, was an ardent proponent of liberal economic reforms and rose to national prominence as the popular governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region in the 1990s.

Promising political career

Once dubbed the "golden boy" of Russian politics in the media, Nemtsov was later named first deputy prime minister by then-President Boris Yeltsin, a move that many interpreted as the Russian leader’s bid to groom his heir to the Kremlin.

But Yeltsin handed over power to Putin, who then was elected president in 2000. Nemtsov became a vocal critic of the new Russian leader as the Kremlin moved to stifle critical media outlets and launched a campaign against wealthy Yeltsin-era oligarchs who refused to toe the government’s line.

Nemtsov served as a deputy in Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, during Putin’s first term. He lost his seat in 2003 parliamentary elections in which the pro-Kremlin party United Russia seized an overwhelming majority.

In the ensuing years, he led an array of liberal-minded opposition movements and parties, and authored reports accusing Putin’s government of massive corruption.

In 2013, Nemtsov released a report alleging that officials and businessmen had stolen up to $30 billion in funds earmarked to finance the 2014 Winter Olympics in his hometown, Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi.

"It is obvious that Putin's friends are running the preparations for the Olympic Games," Nemtsov told RFE/RL at the time. "It is also obvious that one is reluctant to put his own friends behind bars. However, we cannot look at all this passively because the scale [of their activities] will only grow bigger. The embezzlement they are presiding over is not just some kind of children's game but a real threat to Russia's national security."

Meteoric rise

Boris Yefimovich Nemtsov was born in Sochi on October 9, 1959. He went on to study physics and earn his doctorate in 1985 at a university in the Volga River city of Gorky, now called Nizhny Novgorod, 250 miles east of Moscow.

In Gorky, Nemtsov first embraced political activism campaigning against the construction of a nuclear power plant in the region. In a 2013 interview with Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio, he said he was inspired by his mother, a pediatrician who was concerned about the safety of nuclear power.

"Mama started collecting signatures, and I was getting scared that they would put her in jail, arrest her. So of course I was standing next to her to make sure no one touched her," he said.

In 1990, at age 30, Nemtsov won a seat in the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Republic and later moved to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR.

When a group of hard-liners in the Communist Party and KGB launched a coup attempt against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, Nemtsov hunkered down with Yeltsin at the Russian parliament building and stood next to the tank where Yeltsin made his famous speech to street protesters.

"I understood at that time that these were very important days for my country. And really it was the death of communism. We understood that very clearly. But we were romantic,” Nemtsov said in a 2011 interview with RFE/RL.

Pushed economic reforms

Months after the failed coup, Nemtsov was named governor of Nizhny Novgorod by Yeltsin and was later re-elected. During his governorship, Nemtsov collaborated with other politicians to introduce privatization and market reforms aimed at reviving the industrial region’s economy.

By 1994, Yeltsin was already hinting that Nemtsov could one day run the country.

"He has grown so much that you can already tip him for president," Yeltsin said of Nemtsov during a trip to Nizhny Novgorod that year.

Nemtsov’s meteoric rise continued, and in 1997 Yeltsin named him first deputy prime minister. He was 37.

He joked at the time that his appointment was "like putting me in front of a firing squad," though he had already demonstrated a tendency not to back down from a fight.

During a televised debate two years earlier, nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky had tossed a glass of orange juice in his face and Nemtsov tossed juice back at him.

Nemtsov’s stint in the federal government proved short-lived, however, as Russia lurched toward a default in August 1998. He was demoted to deputy prime minister in April of that year and submitted his resignation days after the default, which Yeltsin accepted.

'Reality looks much more serious'

Nemtsov went on to co-found the Union of Right Forces (SPS) political party in 1999, together with other former members of Yeltsin’s team. The party was inextricably linked to privatizations and reforms of the 1990s that many Russians reviled after suffering through multiple economic crises in the decade.

He was elected that year to the State Duma on the SPS ticket, serving as deputy speaker in the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament.

Four years later, however, the party failed to gain any seats in the Duma elections dominated by United Russia, prompting Nemtsov to embark on a career in “non-systemic” opposition politics.

Nemtsov became a leader of opposition protests against Putin and his government and was arrested repeatedly by Russian riot police during demonstrations over the past decade.

Pro-Kremlin groups and media demonized him as a puppet of Western governments who was seeking to return the country to the economic and social chaos of the 1990s.

In 2009, Nemtsov ran for mayor of Sochi but lost overwhelmingly to the Kremlin’s candidate in an election opposition activists claimed was marred by widespread fraud and manipulation.

At one point during the campaign, an assailant threw ammonia in Nemtsov’s face. He later said he believed the attack was carried out by pro-Kremlin activists due to his criticism of the planned Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Assessment of Putin changed

Nemtsov had initially offered guarded praise for Putin after Yeltsin appointed the former KGB officer to the post of prime minister in 1999, calling him a “very acceptable figure” for Russia’s liberals and a “capable, experienced, and intelligent person.”

But he told Ekho Moskvy in 2013 that he had never supported Putin, noting that his mother told him to “never trust” a KGB man.

He said Putin’s first four years in office – including the arrest of Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and authorities’ response to the 2004 terrorist attack on Beslan’s School No. 1 – turned him against the Russian president for good.

Speaking to RFE/RL in 2011, Nemtsov said he, Yeltsin, and the former president’s team were “naive” to believe ending communism would mean “a great life in a few months."

“We believed that we would just dismiss communism and we'd be lucky,” he said. But unfortunately reality looks much more serious and much more complicated than we believed at the time."

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, BBC, Ekho Moskvy, The Moscow Times, The Wall Street Journal and