Friday, March 6, 2015

The West has Boris Nemtsov's Blood on its Hands

March in honor of Boris Nemtsov (2015) (Photograph © Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)


"I swear to respect and protect the rights and freedoms of the individual and the citizen . . . follow and defend the Constitution of the Russian Federation" - Vladimir Putin taking the Constitutional Oath in his inauguration as President of Russia (2000)

"Putin is governed by only three values - money, business and power . . . Putinism will be the death of Russia" - Boris Nemtsov in an interview with journalist/commentator Victor Topaller (2010)

There was a custom in ancient Israel that, if someone found the body of a murdered Jew, elders from nearby villages had to convene near the deceased and swear that they did not commit the murder. The rationale for this peculiar practice was that, by giving an oath, the elders declared that they did everything they could to make sure that the Jew was not killed. In other words, if the elders could have done something to prevent the murder, then they in a larger sense shared in the crime and had the blood of the dead Jew on their hands. 

So it is with Boris Nemtsov, the Russian democratic politician barbarically assassinated 100 meters from the Kremlin on February 27th.  As the reports came in from Interfax, I could not contain my tears even though I never met or communicated with the man. All of my knowledge of Nemtsov came through discussions with third parties who knew or worked with him as well as an almost religious monitoring of his speeches, writings and commentary. He was, for me, one of a small handful of sources in Russia from whom I could get objective and reliable information about daily life under President Vladimir Putin's soft (and increasingly harder) authoritarian regime. It was as if an old friend who you counted on to be there with the truth had suddenly vanished. Nemtsov, not only through his democratic and liberal convictions of a free, open, accountable and normal Russia, but through his general approach to life, represented everything that I and many in the West hope that Russia will eventually become.

This article does not delve into the various media narratives or possible explanations for Nemtsov's murder, but advances a more fundamental assertion - the West (particularly the U.S.), through an abdication of leadership when Nemtsov and his allies needed it most, has this man's blood on its hands and is ultimately far more responsible for his death than the jackals who pulled the trigger.

Nemtsov in the 1990s - the West abandons Russia

Boris Nemtsov leads a meeting of "Democratic Russia" in Nizhny Novgorod (1990) - Front Right Placard - "Give Russia's Economy to the Russian People!"  (Photograph © ИТАР-ТАСС)

The emergence of Nemtsov onto the Russian political scene - first as an activist against a nuclear power plant near his home in Gorky (later to have its pre-Soviet name, Nizhny Novgorod, restored by Nemtsov) and then as governor of the region - is also a story of how the West failed to help position Russia on a liberal democratic path after the end of the Cold War. As I have written on these pages, Russia after the Soviet Union bore an eerie resemblance to Weimar Germany: economically - tremendous inflationary pressure, low to nonexistent reserves, food shortages and distribution mechanisms which had effectively ceased to function, and politically - a  government with legitimacy driven by the personal popularity of Boris Yeltsin and barely any historical experience with democratic governance or civil society.

For generations, Russian citizens had programmed themselves to reject politics and live with bouts of political stability punctured by brutal repression. Yeltsin may have wanted Russia to pursue a western course, but many within his own government and powerful factions within the Supreme Soviet and industrial complex (colloquially known as "red directors") wanted any changes to bypass their parochial interests. In an environment where Russia faced a $60 billion sovereign debt bill with less than $2 billion in currency reserves, hardly enough grain to last through the winter and the possibility of civil war, Yeltsin and a core group of liberal economic reformers (headed by Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais, Boris Federov and, later, Nemtsov) proceeded to liberate prices, privatize state-owned industries and open Russia to foreign investment.

This reality should have spurred the West, led by the U.S. (in the form of the George H.W. Bush Administration), to undertake an economic assistance and diplomatic engagement program akin to the Marshall Plan for post-WWII Europe, which facilitated the stable reconstitution of market economies and democratic institutions in Germany and Japan and their rapid integration into the Western orbit.  The U.S. should have joined with Western Europe and Japan to provide post-Soviet Russia with a generous foreign aid package, a fixed, low interest capital loan or partial forgiveness of the Soviet debt that Russia voluntarily inherited. This, along with committed diplomatic and non-governmental engagement, would not only have contained the incredible price increases that followed Yeltsin's market reforms and allowed the government to pay pensions and wages on time, but would also have sent an unambiguous signal to the Russian on the street during that period of hardship and democratic hope that the West saw Russia as one of its own.

Instead, rather than leadership, the West exhibited near complete abandon. According to Chubais, the Bush Administration, far from viewing a democratic Russia as a potential opportunity, tried to undermine Yeltsin's rise and thwart his attempts to foment the Soviet Union's peaceful breakup (i.e., Washington worked behind the scenes to try and keep the decrepit, bankrupt and amoral Soviet system together). When dissolution was a fait accompli after the failed, KGB-orchestrated coup of August, 1991, Washington essentially treated Russia as a third-rate, insignificant afterthought. Gaidar and the reformers pleaded for a comprehensive assistance program to give them breathing space (economic and political) to see their reforms through, but received from the Bush Administration mostly demands to pay Russia's debt on time and wait in line with everyone else for IMF credit. Of the myriad U.S. foreign policy blunders of the last century, this should rank among the top three.

With little western help forthcoming, the reformers had to continue on their own and live with the full political consequences of their painful (but necessary) policies. Nemtsov would later recount that, during the worst months of 1992, prices for a basket of goods in Nizhny Novgorod rose 50 times from where they were in the winter of 1991 - seniors, their savings wiped out by inflation, had to spend a month's pension to buy a pound of cheese. Nemtsov called in the army to roll out soup kitchens and walked to his office under a chorus of old women smashing spoons against empty pots. Instead of wages, he issued bonds (termed "nemtsovki" by locals) which workers would be able to redeem at stores for basic goods. He also introduced a land privatization program from scratch. In short, and largely due to a lack of real help or advice from the West, Nemtsov and his allies had to improvise their way out of Soviet degradation to put Russia on something like a path to development and prosperity.

Nemtsov and the Emergence of Putin

 Inauguration of Vladimir Putin as President of Russia (2000) (Photograph © РИА Новости)

How did Russia reach a point where America and the West have become symbols of hatred and derision, Russian forces are fighting against supposed fascists in E. Ukraine, those in Russian society who oppose the ongoing fratricidal war are called fifth columnists and traitors and, tragically, Boris Nemtsov took four bullets to his back? Phrased differently, how did the hope for a European, democratic future give way to the reality of Putinism? As with the abandonment of the early 1990s, the West's fecklessness played a disproportionately important role.

After twice winning reelection and making his region an unambiguous economic success story, Boris Nemtsov became Minister of Energy and Deputy Prime Minister. Unfortunately, he soon discovered that liberal reform and democratic governance did not at all align with the narrow interests of the Kremlin's two dominant factions - 1) the Yeltsin family and security services (fronted by the FSB) and 2) politically connected businessmen (or "oligarchs," which term Nemtsov helped popularize). The oligarchs, unofficially represented by media tycoon Boris Berezovsky, had bankrolled Yeltsin's 1996 reelection campaign and expected political protection for their commercial empires (Berezovsky once remarked that the Kremlin had a moral obligation to protect him and his corporatist allies). Yeltsin had functionally ceased to govern the country and planned succession with a view to simultaneously appease the oligarchs and the security services.

As for Nemtsov, his strenuous opposition to Berezovsky (in, among other things, his power play to take over natural gas giant Gazprom), insistence on democratic reforms and skepticism of the influence of the FSB (which Putin headed) and other security organs guaranteed isolation from the Kremlin's power players (i.e., Nemtsov, out of principle, refused to play by the rules necessary to gain power). The only thing he really had going for him was Yeltsin's trust and patronage which, unfortunately for Russia, ended in the wake of Russia's August 1998 debt default. Yeltsin, at his most isolated, scapegoated Nemtsov and other reformers for the collapse and effectively purged them from government. Putin, at that time a virtual unknown, was subsequently presented by Berezovsky as the man Yeltsin and the Kremlin players needed. Unlike Nemtsov, Putin was more than willing to do what was needed to win the struggle for succession.

None of the aforementioned intrigues, resulting in Putin's ascent and subsequent demolition of Russia's European progress, need have occurred if the West had acted in time and with vigor. The very phenomenon of the oligarchs and their incredible influence over Kremlin affairs is directly related to Yeltsin's having no source of outside support to provide a cushion for economic reforms. Things had gotten so bad, in fact, that the Communists held a majority of seats in the Russian Duma less than a year before the 1996 Presidential Election. With a nonexistent campaign and no money, Yeltsin effectively outsourced his government to the only people (with assets) willing and able (for purely parochial reasons) to back him. Had the U.S. and its allies stepped in with a comprehensive program, it is unclear whether the oligarchs would have been able to attain de facto control over Russia's government. Similarly, but for Yeltsin's isolation and desire for self-preservation, there would be virtually no chance that his successor could come from the security services. Like his inspiration Yuri Andropov (Soviet leader and head of the KGB from 1967-82), Putin was presented as a tough man capable of putting Russia's house in order - for many in Russian society, the image of the FSB as a dedicated and minimally corrupt organization mirrored that of its KGB predecessor. Instead of a determination to see economic and democratic reforms through and fully join the prosperous West, many Russians in the late 1990s (exhausted and battered by change), wanted calm and stability. Western liberalism and market economics became identified with the oligarchs, corporatism, high prices and lost savings to many millions on the street. This perception, which the West could have easily prevented, has done more to shield Putin and cement his system than almost anything else before or since.


The West's failure to adequately assist Russia during the most difficult years of the post-Soviet transition guaranteed the isolation and eventual marginalization of Nemtsov and his allies. Had a Marshall Plan been implemented, the pain of inflation could have been ameliorated and the reformers given more time to fully see their changes through. Had these reforms been allowed to conclude and at least some of Russia's Soviet-era debts forgiven, the 1998 Default (and the resultant liberal purge) might never have happened. Had western leaders thought twenty years rather than twenty minutes ahead, Russia might not have suffered the political degradation it has under Putinism and Boris Nemtsov would in all likelihood still be alive today.

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