The ‘opposition’ in Russia and the murder of Boris Nemstov

The Guardian has carried a piece by the daughter of murdered Russian politician Boris Nemstov. The piece is headlined “As inquest into Boris Nemtsov’s murder comes to a close his daughter warns public apathy is threatening the future of the country’s political opposition”. (In fact it is not an “inquest”; they are referring to an investigation out of which charges will be brought).

First off, just a clarification that needs to be made routinely whenever the Western press covers the political scene in Russia. The liberal opposition parties – one of which Boris Nemstov was a member of – are not the political opposition in Russia. After United Russia the other main parties are Fair Russia (a democratic socialist party) and the Russian Communist Party (more traditionally Communist – but increasingly more like a Western socialist party). For example in the 2011 State Duma (parliament) elections the Yabloko party which could be described as a centre-right democratic opposition party [1] won 3.45% of the votes coming behind the Communist Party (7.62%) and Fair Russia (3.53%). [2] The Right Cause [3] party – formed as the result of a merger with Boris Nemstov’s Union of Right forces, won 0.60% of the vote. When the Western media talk about the political parties who represent the pro-Western laissez-faire economics position as the “opposition” in Russia it is because they are dreaming about regime change. Nothing to do with democracy. The fact is that the values of the liberal pro-Western opposition are just not that popular in Russia. If you lose an election sometimes it is because – people haven’t chosen you. It isn’t always because the elections are rigged and/or people live in a Kremlin controlled media bubble – the two explanations which the Western regime-change forces routinely trot out to explain the low ratings of “democractic” forces in Russia. The relatively low popularity of the pro-Western liberal parties is confirmed by opinion polls. (As for the line about a pro-Kremlin media bubble – it is not borne out by reality. For example CNN broadcasts in Russia. Russians can if they want access the Internet and could, for example, read the Guardian web site using Google translate if they don’t speak English. While it is the case that most TV stations are state-owned or linked to the state in the print media there is a considerable degree of non-state ownership [4]. And, a possible irony; is the media free in the West – or is it controlled by forces which are absolutely owned by the Western dominated system of global capital?). Describing the pro-Western liberal opposition in Russia as “the opposition” is a bit like describing the Socialist Workers Party as the “political opposition” in the UK. Something perhaps that the Soviet state may have done when they were dreaming of regime change.

Boris Nemstov’s daughter has a point. Her father was murdered. It looks like some people are going to take the rap for it – but quite possibly the investigation has not got to the root of who ordered the assassination. [5] A driver of a militia leader in Chechnya is sought – but, arguably, it goes higher than that. On the other hand; perhaps the investigators cannot find evidence to charge someone higher than that? The political malfeasance explanation is not the only possible one.

Boris Nemstov’s daughter complains about the “lies” of Putin. He lied about there not being Russian soldiers in Crimea and he lied about not raising taxes and then introduced a charge on long-haul truckers. As far as the first point goes; Russia did conduct a secret military operation in Crimea and did put out public misinformation about it. In a way this is characteristically Soviet. From their point of view though this was a way of ensuring that there was no military conflict with the West. Putin has since argued (while obviously being aware of the tenuousness of the point) that they didn’t exactly lie as they were allowed to have troops in Crimea under a 1997 agreement with Ukraine and the numbers involved did not exceed the total numbers permitted. As for apparently breaking a  promise on raising taxes; if that is the worst that Putin has done he would be a saint by the standards of any Western politician.

Zhanna Nemtsova may well have a point about ‘indifference’. Russian society (the political leadership and the public both) may be showing a degree of indifference to the murder of her father. After the event the Kremlin press spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said that the Kremlin would not have ordered his killing as he was politically irrelevant. That certainly sounded indifferent, even heartless. Obviously for the daughter of the murdered man this is hard to bear. But is her political explanation sustainable? She complains that Russians have become selfish and that this is part of Putin’s plan. But this is difficult to square with the other point she admits; that Putin’s regime has built up a ‘political system’. That system undeniably is in part built up on calls to patriotism. (Some commentators in the Western media rather cynically described the 70th anniversary commemoration of Russia’s victory in WWII an exercise in political thought control). That is not a call to selfishness. It reflects the new political experiment in Russia; they are trying to have free-market capitalism while moderating its worst excesses with a set of values (tradition, patriotism, the family) which are promoted but not (in the main) legally enforced. Whether this experiment will succeed or not remains to be seen. (This writer is inclined to think that it will fail because capitalist forces can usually undermine morality – as we have seen happen in the West). But is it about “moral decay”? Zhanna Nemtsova may not know it but the real moral decay would be if Russia were to become an unbridled free-market – as it was for a short-time in the Yeltsin years when criminals and corrupt Soviet apparatchiks stole the assets of the state while everyone else in Russia became impoverished. There is no reason at all to question Zhanna Nemtsova’s sincerity but if she wants Russia to become a country of “moral decay” all that is needed is for the liberal pro-Western forces to win. They can turn Russia into the image of a Western country – like the UK say. And then she will see what “moral decay” and indifference really means. Check, for example, the widespread public support in the UK for the benefits sanctions and cuts regime being pushed through by the current government. Check the ‘expenses scandal’. Check the way that MPs use their elected positions as a career step to profitable consultancy careers. Check the ‘playing with facts’ of Western politicians – where ‘spin’ has become the language through which they communicate with the voters. Check the illegal wars based on lies. Check the profiteering from private prisons. Check the poisoning of school-children with profitable drugs because they won’t sit still in class. And so on. Liberal free-market ‘democracy’ may well sound like an ideal to someone whose father has been murdered in a country where people have their heads down and cannot raise a cry about it. But there is considerable naivety in this dream. Naivety that the cynical forces of Western capitalism will easily exploit. Yes, Zhanna Nemtsova – there may be a climate of indifference in Russia – but it can get much much worse than that.







Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer