Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.
The previous issue is here.
Boris Nemtsov, opposition leader, has been shot dead two days before he was to lead a protest march against Russia’s war on Ukraine and the government’s handling of economic crisis.
Novaya Gazeta Releases Sensational Kremlin Memo: âIt is Seen as Correct to Initiate Annexation of Eastern Regions of Ukraine to Russiaâ
Former Russian Intelligence Officers Behind Boisto âTrack IIâ Talks â and Now the Flawed Minsk Agreement.
See also our Russia This Week stories:
Ultranationalists Angry over âCapitulationâ of Minsk Agreement,
âAnti-Maidanâ Launched by Nationalists, Cossacks, Veterans, Bikers
The Guild War â How Should Journalists Treat Russian State Propagandists?
Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costsâ.
The Interfax news agency reports that the police are now in possession of the license plate number of the car driven by the persons responsible for murdering of the Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov.
According to Interfax’s source with the police, the license plate belongs to either a Ford Focus or a Ford Mondeo. The police have not yet located the car. The police have also begun reviewing the CCTV footage of the murder scene, but no results have been reported thus far.
The investigators are currently interviewing Anna Duritskaya, the Ukrainian model who was with Nemtsov at the time of his murder and is thus the key witness of the murder. Little is known about Duritskaya’s identity otherwise.
Meanwhile, Russia’s state news agency TASS reports that Nemtsov’s murderer surveilled his victim and knew the route Nemtsov was taking “very well.”
Boris Nemtsov was murdered two days before a planned opposition March, “Spring” (“Vesna”). Leonid Volkov, one of the organizers of the match, suggested cancelling the event and holding a memorial procession for Nemtsov instead. Officials of RPR-PARNAS, the political party co-founded by Boris Nemtsov, have called for a public gathering at the site of Nemtsov’s murder at 11:40 tomorrow morning to honor the politician. Like Volkov, members of RPR-PARNAS have also suggested cancelling the “Spring” March, a decision criticized by Evgeny Chichvarkin, a renowned Russian entrepreneur who now lives in exile in London.
Many Russian politicians from various sides of the political spectrum have expressed their condolences at Boris Nemtsov’s murder. However, some Russian politicians have suggested that Nemtsov was murdered deliberately to provoke outrage at the Russian government. One of those politicians was the Duma deputy Yaroslav Nilov, from the nationalist party LDPR, who compared Boris Nemtsov’s murder to the 1933 Reichstag fire, which was started by the supporters of Adolf Hitler in order to legitimize his desire for broad emergency powers.
— Anton Melnikov
As we reported earlier, Leonid Volkov, one of the organisers of Sunday’s planned protest march, has told reporters he believes the march should be postponed.
Volkov has now said that a funeral march should be held in central Moscow instead.
Translation: 1 March – Funeral march in the centre
— Pierre Vaux
“Under the present circumstances, I believe that the March 1 demonstration must be postponed.”
“We need to hold some other kind of action perhaps a minutes silence in the centre of Moscow, and postpone the demonstration to some other date.”
— Pierre Vaux
LifeNews has also posted security camera footage which reportedly shows the car, a white Ford Focus or Ford Mondeo, which was reportedly involved in the murder. Media Zone, citing Interfax, reports that the police has the plate number for the car.
In our last update below, we note that, according to Kommersant, Nemtsov’s colleague Ilya Yashin says he was working on a report about Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine.
It’s worth noting that we have not independently corroborated that Nemtsov was walking with anyone, and if he was walking with Durickaya, we do not know how they knew each other.
— James Miller, Anton Melnikov
The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, Sledcom, has published this report on the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov (translated by The Interpreter):
Following the murder of Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, the Head Investigative Directorate of the Investigative Committee of Russia (ICR) in Moscow initiated criminal proceedings based on Article 105 part 1 (murder) and Article 222 (illegal possession of a weapon) of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.
According to preliminary data, an unknown person in a car shot Boris Nemtsov at least 7-8 times, when [Nemtsov] was walking on the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky bridge. An investigative team is currently working on the scene of the crime, performing a detailed examination of the crime scene, [and] finding and interviewing witnesses of the act.
As ordered by Alexander Bastrykin, the chairman of the ICR, the investigation has been joined by experienced crime specialists and investigators of the ICR. They are carrying out all the necessary actions related to finding and apprehending persons connected with the murder.
Kommersant adds that according to Yelena Alekseyeva, a Sledkom spokesperson, said that the woman Nemtsov was walking with was from Ukraine. Kommersant also adds:
“According to Boris Nemtsov’s close associate, Ilya Yashin, the opposition politician was perparing a report on the participation of Russian soldiers in the conflict in Ukraine.”
— Anton Melnikov, Pierre Vaux, James Miller
Boris Nemtsov’s lawyer, Vadim Prokhorov, says that the opposition leader who was assassinated today had already received death threats. Kommersant reports (translated by The Interpreter):
“Several months ago, Boris was threatend by some thugs on social media. One of the thugs wrote to him directly: ‘Soon, I will take you out.’ However I do not believe that a person envisioning a murder would make such loud statements. We passed on the threatening statement to law enforcement, but there was no news since then. One thing is clear: no one from Boris Nemtsov’s circle or his colleagues can feel safe. I’m sure that this has a political motive, at that, the murder could have been committed by someone returning from conflict zone in south-eastern Ukraine.”
— Pierre Vaux, James Miller
Vladimir Putin has already proposed a theory about Boris Nemtsov’s assassination — that his killing was a provocation presumably (according to this theory) to make the Kremlin look guilty. The Russian state-operated TASS reports (translated by The Interpreter):
“Putin noted that this cruel murder had all the hallmarks of a contract job and bears an exclusively provocational character,” said Peskov [Putin’s press secretary – The Interpreter].
According to him, “the head of state has instructed the leaders of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, Interior Ministry and FSB to create an investigative group and to keep the course of the investigation of this crime under his personal control.”
— James Miller, Pierre Vaux
There is no longer any doubt about whether opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was killed. A video stream showed the body on the ground, as did several pictures from the scene.
As we reported earlier, a colleague of his has confirmed both his death and the location of the murder. TASS reports:
RPR-PARNAS party member Ilya Yashin told TASS that “unfortunately, it is true.”
“I am standing on Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge and see his body,” Yashin told TASS by phone.
Nemtsov was killed just outside the Kremlin:
The march, scheduled to be held on Sunday, March 1, was
originally to protest the war in Ukraine and the government’s anti-crisis program. Now in all likelihood it will become a memorial march.
Nemtsov’s work has been featured many times by The Interpreter,
and his investigation into corruption at the Sochi Winter Olympics is
among the most important studies on how the Putin regime uses corruption
to benefit key political allies at the expense of the Russian taxpayer.
Ilya Yashin, a fellow member of Boris Nemtsov’s Republican Party of Russia – People’s Freedom Party (RPR-PARNAS), has written on his Facebook page, confirming reports that Nemtsov has been shot dead.
The post, published at 21:27 GMT, read (translated by The Interpreter):
Nemtsov has been shot. He’s dead.
— Pierre Vaux
Our translation of the Interfax report:
Opposition politician Boris Nemtsov has been shot on Friday evening the centre of Moscow, reported a source in law enforcement to Interfax.
“The unidentified individual shot Boris Nemtsov four times. The politician died from multiple injuries,” said the agency’s source.
Interfax does not have official confirmation of this report.
At this point we have to treat this story as unconfirmed.
— James Miller, Pierre Vaux
As we reported earlier, Aleksandr Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee, has released his agency’s annual report, and outraged liberals by calling for Russia to renounce the supremacy of international law, which it incorporated in reforms after the defeat of the August 1991 coup.
Evidence of a crackdown on society as well as a rise in violent ultranationalist and Islamist groups is illustrated by the jump in crimes under the “extremism” statute of the Russian criminal code. The following is a translation, by The Interpreter, of an excerpt from the report:
591 criminal cases were opened for crimes of an extremist tendency, that is, 28% higher than in 2013. Four criminal cases were investigated of organization of criminal extremist associations (the sentences have gone into force). Twenty-five persons were indicted for organization of the activity of extremist formations (in 2013 there were 51). Meanwhile, practice illustrates that the spread of extremism is enabled by widespread violation of the Federal Law No. 304-F3 of November 2, 2013, under which the sale of sim cards is prohibited in non-stationary vending facilities (without recording the identity of the purchaser). Here order must be installed in the relevant supervision and inspection agencies.
The battle against extremism is especially relevant in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the Victory of the Great Fatherland War of 1941-1945 [World War II, on May 9th–The Interpreter], and also in the context of the path that our country must face under conditions of implementing the anti-crisis measures. And active work in this direction has been underway for a long time.
In the Republic of Tatarstan, the activity of five members of an extremist association, At-Takfir Val-Khidzhra, was intercepted, which was preparing a terrorist act by blowing up the railroads. By sentence of the Supreme Court of the republic, all members of the criminal association were sentenced to long prison terms.
The Sverdlovsk Region Court sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment the organizer of Folksturm, an extremist association which was involved in the murder of two people and attempted murder of seven people.
116 criminal cases of crimes of a terrorist nature have been sent to court.
57 participants of an armed rebellion in the city of Nalchik (Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria) in 2005 pleaded guilty.
Amirov, former mayor of the city of Makhachkala was caught in preparing a terrorist act against the head of the regional Pension Fund. The terrorist acts committed in the city of Volgograd have been solved.
Bastrykin does not single out for mention the ongoing case of BORN [Battle Organization of Russian Nationalists] in which some persons were already convicted of murders and some are still on trial. He also doesn’t mention how many suspects in Islamist groups were shot by Russian forces in firefights — at least 300 in 2014, a figure which has also increased. Likely that report will be coming from FSB head Aleksandr Bortnikov soon.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Public Broadcasting of Latvia reports that Russia has conducted military drills in the Pskov region, bordering both Latvia and Estonia:
In the latest display of its military might, Russia’s armed forces on Wednesday conducted drills in the western Pskov region on the borders with Latvia and Estonia, sending close to 2000 paratroopers into the sky for test jumps involving some 500 units of equipment, reported national information agency LETA.
According to AFP, citing Irina Kruglova of the Russian defense ministry, the 1,500-man en-masse sky jump was a standard feature of the drills, which are scheduled to go on until Saturday. One of the scenarios involves the capture and destruction of a simulated enemy airfield.
Reading into Latvian government statements cited in that story, it seems that the Latvian government was not informed of the drills ahead of time, contrary to traditional practice.
Russia is now regularly holding similar drills near the borders of neighboring countries, and it has regularly been flying aircraft in aggressive postures near the edges of international airspace.
If such maneuvers are designed to scare Russia’s neighbors, it seems the politicians making the defense budgets for NATO nations are not paying attention. Last September NATO nations pledged to spend 2% of their GDP on defense, and yet the only two nations which are meeting this threshold are the United States, the NATO member which is arguably the least at risk from Russian aggression, and Estonia, NATO’s smallest member. Business Insider reports:
According to a new study from the European Leadership Network (ELN), six nations will increase their budgets in 2015 while six military budgets will shrink. France’s budget will remain flat. And the UK and Germany, two of the largest military powers in Europe, will be among those seeing their budgets shrink…
Poland has increased its budget in 2015 and has pledged to raise it again in 2016 to the 2% threshold. Likewise, Latvia is undertaking a gradual increase and aims at reaching the target goal by 2020. Lithuania, which is so concerned over potential Russian aggression that it will bring back military conscription starting in 2016, increased its defense budget from 0.78% to 1.11%.
Estonia’s President Toomas Hendrik Ilves has taken to twitter to share this report and note the importance of standing up to Russia:
Liberal Russian bloggers have been in an uproar about the annual report released yesterday February 26 by Aleksandr Bastrykin, chair of the Investigative Committee, a powerful body formed in 2011 to investigate the most important criminal cases in Russia, from the Bolotnaya Square demonstrations to claims of “genocide” committed by Ukraine against ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers to high-profile official corruption cases.
Most disturbing to all those watching the reforms of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras erode under Putin’s reign for the last 15 years is Bastrykin’s call for an end to the precedence of international law over Russia’s domestic law, which he called a “sabotage” of the Russian Constitution.
Bastrykin is most notorious for driving Sergei Sokolov, a journalist from the independent Novaya Gazeta to a forest outside of Moscow and personally threatening him with death.
The lengthy report shows that cases of “extremism” have increased, more terrorists have been prosecuted, cases when prosecutors are able to reject cases for investigation are down, more murders are “solved” — in short, a report that provides the facts and figures to explain why Russia feels more oppressive, yet less safe.
Missing from the report is the one statistic that analysts look at to see if a country is reforming: the acquittal rate. This rate has always been extremely low in Russia.
Translation: if the RF signs an international document, it should fulfill it. Or not sign it.
With a report that so grimly broadcast the increased powers of the state and the reduction of due process and defendants’ right, Bastrykin opted to emphasize the case of an elderly woman who had survived the siege of Leningrad but died in a police station in St. Petersburg after she was arrested for stealing some sausage.
Police swooped down on the store, one in a chain called Magnit, and found all kinds of violations of health and sanitation codes. Now Bastrykin is taking it further.
Translation: Bastrykin demanded that policemen be punished for the death of the blockade survivor at the Magnit.
Throughout the last year, a key feature of Russian war propaganda and
disinformation has been the notion that Ukraine is causing a “genocide”
of ethnic Russians or Russian-speakers in Ukraine by defending itself
against the Russian invasion. The Investigative Committee has taken
cases ranging from the killing of school-children in a soccer field in
Donetsk to the killing of state journalists in shell fire and opened
investigations of them, although it has no jurisdiction in Ukraine.
Now to fix that gap, Russia is calling for an international tribunal for war crimes in Ukraine.
Translation: Bastrykin proposes creating an international court for crimes in the south-east of Ukraine.
The Investigative Committee was created ostensibly to solve the problem of the all-powerful prosecutor’s office. In the Soviet era, the prosecutor was described as “a one-man grand jury” who could decide to investigate and prosecute crimes — and if there were any complaints, he himself would be the one to oversee his own work.
The Investigative Committee (IC) separated out the powers of investigation from the prosecutor’s office, yet it still remained essentially an arm of the executive branch, which has supreme power in Russia (although some critics have maintained that the IC technically is not part of any branch of government). The head of the IC is approved by parliament after his candidacy is submitted by the president, and has the power to dismiss him, but given the weakness of the legislative branch in Russia, he is essentially the president’s man.
Bastrykin prided himself on his report of the increase in prosecutors who were investigated and tried for corruption or neglect of their duties. The question naturally arises who will then be responsible for watching that the IC doesn’t become corrupt. Putin has solved this by proposing a new law that will enable the prosecutor to oversee such cases in the IC, which Bastrykin says he welcomes.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick