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As 1000s Mourn At Nemtsov's Funeral, Seven Main Conspiracy Theories Emerge

Tens of thousands marched Sunday through Central Moscow to honor Boris Nemtsov, outspoken opposition critic of Vladimir Putin who was murdered Friday night and thousands more mourned today at his funeral (though notably not Putin himself) and more pointedly, The BBC reports, several EU politicians and Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny were barred from attending the funeral. Hours later, Mr Navalny accused the Russian authorities of responsibility for the murder, adding to slew of competing theories involving everything from the CIA to Islamic militants and Ukrainian nationalists.

 

 

As The BBC Reports,

Thousands of Russians have bid farewell to murdered Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov as his funeral took place in the capital Moscow.

 

They queued patiently to view his coffin before it began its solemn journey to a city cemetery.

 

Several EU politicians and Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny were barred from attending the funeral.

 

Hours later, Mr Navalny accused the Russian authorities of responsibility for the murder.

 

In a statement (in Russian) from jail, where he is serving a 15-day sentence, he said: "I believe that Nemtsov was murdered by members of a government (special services) or pro-government organisation on the order of the country's political leadership (including Vladimir Putin)."

 

The question, he said, was whether the order had been given to kill Nemtsov or "stage an action that would have a high impact".

 

Alternatively, he alleged that Nemtsov had been killed on the order of officials in Yaroslavl region, where he had been investigating corruption.

 

No arrests have been made and no motive has been established for the crime.

But that has not stopped conspiracy theories from emerging via official and unofficial channels.

There is no doubt that this crime was carefully planned. The location and timing of the killing indicated that as well. The investigation found out that Boris Nemtsov was going with his female friend to his apartment, which is located close to the murder scene. The organizers and the executers apparently knew his route,” Vladimir Markin, spokesman for the Investigative Committee, told journalists.

There appear to seven key theories as to who (or what) was responsible, as InterpreterMag explains:

1. Islamists angry at Nemtsov’s support for the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists; this theory was indicated by Vladimir Markin, spokesman for the Investigative Committee)

2. Business partners, jealous lovers, or other private persons – In most cases involving money and love triangles, the victim is killed inside or right outside their home.  The murderer is not going to want to risk being seen in a wide-open public space, or caught on surveillance cameras. The fact that Nemtsov was killed in a wide-open space with lots of possible witnesses, and surveillance cameras in a highly-secure area near the Kremlin, tends to suggest that personal reasons are not involved.

3. Ukrainian government or State Department paymasters. Those positing the involvement of the Ukrainian or any Western government in the assassination who are unhappy with their charge’s supposed work for them have to explain why these putative pay-masters looking to “punish for poor performance” or conversely “split society” didn’t wait until March 1, and a presumably failed march with fairly low turnout (or a wildly successful march), to then settle their scores — and thus miss an opportunity for a high-profile event first to attract support of their cause. Given that in Russia, murders and arrests tend to intimidate dissidents rather than fuel them to more protest, this seems counterintuitive to their hypothetical interests.

There’s also the obvious problem that if these paymasters want to recruit new helpers, making obvious examples of poor performers by executing them may tend to drive down recruitment.

4. Western intelligence seeking destabilization of Russia. The argument that any assassination “destabilizes society” seems readily credible until we contemplate that in Russia, killing an opposition leader without much of a following in the broader society does not achieve the desired affect.

There have been dozens of assassinations in the last 25 years of journalists, priests, civic activists, lawyers, parliamentarians, artists, and business people. None of these affected the rule of Vladimir Putin whatsoever; other factors were involved in the demise of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Russia is already severely destabilized by Putin’s own actions in Ukraine, the fall of the ruble’s value and the price of oil. The effect of a chill on speech and assembly would arguably provide more stability (albeit of the potentially volatile kind due to state oppression), rather than destabilization.

This could be projection by Kremlin-controlled media, as one key way in which Russian-backed separatists and suspects who were trained in Russia, according to Ukrainian police, have destabilized cities like Lugansk and Kharkiv is to commit high-profile assassinations or bombings (see the cases of the Russian ultrarightist activist Aleksandr Prosyolkov who came to Lugansk from Moscow; Aleksandr “Batman” Bednov in Lugansk; and at least 10 bombings of Kharkiv in which Maidan activists and other civilians have been killed.)

5. Russian opposition itself making of Nemtsov a “sacrificial victim”.  This is a version of the “false flag” technique in subversive activity, and is also likely a projection based on the Kremlin’s own methods. The single greatest disinformation story that the Kremlin has put out regarding Maidan is that the snipers who killed 100 people were from Right Sector or other ultrarightist forces who killed their own fellow demonstrators as well as police to provoke a violent coup. While some of the demonstrators may have shot police, the evidence also indicates that most demonstrators were unarmed and shot by riot police.

Furthermore, there is indication that not only did the Kremlin have a scenario for takeover of the Crimea and the Donbass before Yanukovych fled, Yanukovych had plenty of reasons to flee without actually facing gunmen in his own office or residence — which never occurred.

Blogger Oleg Kashin has an interesting post about the “sacrificial lamb” theory, noting that he himself heard this theory espoused during his own police interrogations regarding the 2010 attack on him which left him severely injured, after which he was eventually forced to flee Russia to live abroad.

An investigator asked him if he didn’t think the attack on him was meant to “destabilize Russia” or was an effort by opposition to make him into a “sacrificial victim.” He didn’t think that about his own case, and doesn’t think it about Nemtsov’s case now, either. He took it at face value for what it was: government-related intimidation to punish him for blogging critically about an environmental issue.

Ilya Ponomarev argued backward from the actual “audience” that would be most affected by the assassination to discard both the “sacrificial lamb” and “destabilization of society” theory:

“The audience for that crime was not the Russian people; the target audience is within the Russian elites, who knew Nemtsov very well, and even those who were Putin supporters had great respect and they knew him as first vice prime minister; and elites in the West – an even greater target than elites in Russia.”

Not ordinary Russians or “all of Russia” were affected, because if Nemtsov had any recognition value, it was only as a figured hated for his association with the Yeltsin regime. Rather, it would be the liberal intelligentsia in Russia and its supporters in the West who knew Nemtsov and his value who would be most affected.

As Ponomarev pointed out, unlike other figures who were less transparent, everything about Nemtsov was known,  including his love affairs and business dealings and he was never shy about expressing his opinion on a wide range of issues. That made it difficult for officials to control him.

6. Ultranationalist or nationalist-Bolshevik or other type of groups to the right or left of the Kremlin operating on their own. The assassination of the most visible enemy designated by Anti-Maidan as “the organizer of Maidan” is not merely intended to “discredit Putin” — who is already quite discredited. Rather, it signals to Putin that extremists will hedge him in by “taking care of” enemies they believe may influence him, to one extent or another in the “fifth column.”

Regardless of the forces or interests at play in the murder of Nemtsov, it’s likely that suspects in the murder will be delivered quickly — already there is talk of “license plates from Ingushetia or Ossetia,” Caucasian republic near Chechnya, which indicates that a Chechen or other Caucasian, the standard culprits for crimes in Russia may turn out once again to be involved.

For one, a key feature of the annual report of Aleksandr Bastrykin delivered last Friday, February 27 (the same day as Nemtsov’s murder) is that 86% of murders are solved, and that the percentage of such cases has increased since last year. After boasting about this facet of his Investigative Committee — which he believes makes the reason self-evident for separating the investigative functions from the prosecutor’s office — he will be under pressure to make good on his claim, not to mention under considerable political and media pressure with such a high-profile case.

For another, the faster the government can find a credible scapegoat, even if the investigation and trial process drags out for years, the more any undesirable fallout can be controlled.

Ilya Ponomarev predicted that in the next few weeks, the culprit will likely be found:

“Their face will be on Russian TV, their biographies and the evidence — ‘the evidence’ — would be on RT, very nicely presented,conveyed in perfect English by people like Ms. Boykov…conveyed in perfect English, and with all the proof that is needed to convince a Western audience. My personal bet is that it will be somebody next to Khodorkovsky whom Kremlin really fears.”

(Note: The Interpreter is a project of the Institute for Modern Russia which is funded by Pavel Khodorkovsky, son of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. )

7. The Kremlin. When political killings have occurred in the United States, Latin America, Asia or Africa, media have no trouble questioning whether the government in power could be involved somehow. Yet when it comes to Russia, such probing is instantly relegated to the category of “conspiracy theory” and discredited as tin-foil hattery.

pic.twitter.com/xlysJ1cDwc

— Sergey Elkin (@Sergey_Elkin)

Even so, the simplest explanation for the murder of an opposition leader against the dramatic backdrop of the Kremlin walls and towers and St. Basil’s Cathedral,  on the eve of a public anti-war march, is that forces in power or close to the government were most motivated and most capable of the deed.

There are a number of factors that support government involvement in some form:

a. Nemtsov was under constant surveillance. This was proven multiple times as his cell phone calls were publicized in the press and his meetings with people were broadcast on TV. His killers would know where he was meeting his girlfriend and where he might stroll after dinner on his way home. Presumably if an attempt was made on Nemtsov while he was under surveillance, agents could prevent it or quickly nab the culprits. Even if it seems to some unlikely Nemtsov wasn’t under total 24/7 surveillance, in the period leading up to a high-profile march, he would be.

 

b. The videotape from the security camera trained on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge indicates the involvement of a city vehicle in deliberately blocking the view of the murder and making escape possible. As we noted regarding the video, there is suspicious activity as people get in and out of the vehicle and then make a getaway in a passenger car. This is the key indication of possible official collusion. Other video cameras much closer to the scene of the crime likely caught more details, but the footage has not been publicized.

 

c. A fear that the march might get more than the barely 30,000 that the government mustered for the Anti-Maidan cause, even paying demonstrators, bussing in protesters, and urging unions and local government to turn out people dependent on the state for their salaries. Had 30,000 appeared for “Spring” — and it’s not clear at all that they would, although a rally last March produced that many — the Kremlin might have felt it had a significant challenge. It’s not a challenge it would have been overwhelmed with, however, as experience shows that with just a few dozens arrests and long sentences of 4-5 years such as in the Bolotnaya Square cases, the government could deter participation in large rallies. Even so, it could represent a fresh round of challenges.

 

d. Recent leak of a document purporting to come from the Kremlin indicating plans to annex the Crimea and the Donbass long before Yanukovych was toppled. So much effort has been spent on finding reasons to discount or downplay this document that it may be overlooked that it simply could be true. In that case, a leak from a top official would need to be punished and further leakers or would-be publishers discouraged. Perhaps the Kremlin does not (yet) know who the leaker is and needs to smoke him out.

 

Many believed Novaya Gazeta‘s Dmitry Muratov was in great danger when he announced the leak days before publication, yet to attack or jail him might not get as much publicity as the assassination of an opposition leader about to lead a large public march. Nemtsov was also planning to release a report himself.

 

e.  A demonstrable need in advance of various threatened or anticipated crackdowns to have a powerful deterrence in place to prevent protest. These range from from blocking of independent media websites, Western social media like Twitter and Facebook, due to untenable demands on these companies to place their servers on Russian territory, to further taxation and austerity measures, and a law that will define “undesirable” organizations with foreign ties in addition to the “foreign agents” law.

*  *  *

Whatever person or group committed the murder of Nemtsov, one thing is evident, as InterpreterMag concludes, the indelible image broadcast by media all over the world of a Kremlin critic lying dead just outside the Kremlin’s walls serves as a powerful image to strike fear into the hearts of any other challengers.

 

“Both the state and the opposition in Russia are prone to conspiracy theories,”  Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University who specializes in Russian security affairs, said, according to Bloomberg, “The official media paints a world shaped by dark forces while the anti-Putin opposition only need to look at how controlled the public sphere is for evidence of bad intentions.”