Boris Nemtsov's murder investigated by group that answers to Putin
Nemtsov latest in string of high-profile anti-Putin activists to be killed in recent years
Opposition supporters will march through Moscow on Sunday in memory of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, whose murder has increased concern about Russia's future among opponents of President Vladimir Putin.
Nemtsov, 55, one of Russia's most vocal critics of Putin's policies, was set to lead a rally in the Russian capital before he was gunned down on a bridge just hundreds of metres from the Kremlin yesterday.
Following his death, co-organizers cancelled the rally and instead called for a demonstration of solidarity with the slain opposition leader. The city gave quick approval for a gathering of up to 50,000 people, in contrast to its usual slow and grudging permission for opposition rallies.
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The mourning march could serve to galvanize the beleaguered and marginalized opposition, or it could prove to be a brief catharsis after which emotions dissipate. Popular support for Putin has remained above 80 per cent in recent months, despite the severe economic recession and soaring inflation.
Meanwhile, Russia's top investigative body said Saturday it is looking into several possible motives for the killing of Nemtsov, including an attempt to destabilize the state, Islamic extremism, the Ukraine conflict and his personal life.
His killing came just a few hours after a radio interview in which he denounced Putin's "mad, aggressive" policies and the day before he was to help lead a rally protesting Russia's actions in Ukraine and the economic crisis at home.
In recent years, Nemtsov has been identified by Kremlin propaganda as among the leaders of a "fifth column," painted as a traitor serving the interests of a hostile West.
Nemtsov was also working on a report presenting evidence that he believed proved Russia's direct involvement in the separatist rebellion in Ukraine. Moscow denies backing the rebels with troops and sophisticated weapons.
A 'provocation' against the state
The Investigative Committee said it was looking into whether Nemtsov had been killed as a "sacrificial victim for those who do not shun any method for achieving their political goals," a suggestion echoing the comments by Putin's spokesman and other Russian politicians that the attack was a "provocation" against the state.
The statement also said it was investigating whether the killing was connected to the Ukraine conflict, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since last April, or whether there was a connection to Islamic extremism.
'They won't stop us'
A former deputy prime minister who had feared Putin wanted him dead, Nemtsov was the most prominent opposition figure killed in Putin's 15-year rule. At one time he had been widely seen as the man most likely to succeed Yeltsin as president.
He was also one of the leaders of the rallies in the winter of 2011-12 that became the biggest protests against Putin since he first rose to power in 2000.
Nemtsov's killing focused attention on the tough treatment of opponents in Putin's third term, during which several leading critics have been jailed or have fled Russia following mass rallies against the former KGB spy three years ago.
His death hit other members of the opposition hard.
"People are afraid to support our movement. Opposition activists receive threats every day and Boris was no exception. But they won't stop us," said opposition activist Mark Galperin.
Through the morning, hundreds of people came to the site of Nemtsov's death to lay flowers. One Moscow resident, identified only as Vera, said she was shocked at hearing news of the killing.
"There is lawlessness that is spreading in our country," she told Reuters Sunday. "I myself lost two young people in the 1990s. And now — you see, near the Kremlin walls. It is lawlessness, a nightmare. Nightmare, nightmare, nightmare. I didn't sleep all night, I don't know how one can live in this type of country. Even though I didn't like him much — maybe didn't know something — but now I'm in shock, I'm in shock."
Another man who brought flowers to the makeshift memorial site, who gave his name as Alexander, said the shooting appears intended as a message to others.
Western leaders have strongly condemned the murder, and called for an immediate and transparent investigation.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper released a statement late Friday, calling the murder a "shameful act of violence."
"Mr. Nemtsov will be remembered as a fearless advocate of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Russia. A leader unafraid to voice essential truths, even in the face of violent intimidation, he was also a prominent opponent of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the illegal occupation of Crimea," he said in the statement.
With files from Reuters and CBC News