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