Marcus Kolga is a documentary filmmaker, communications strategies, political activist and publisher of upnorth.eu
"Over the past year, tens of thousands of our compatriots who took to the streets in unprecedented pro-democracy rallies have shown that they are no longer willing to tolerate autocracy and corruption. The task of democratic change in our country is ours and ours alone. But if Canada wants to show solidarity with the Russian people and stand for the universal values of human dignity, the greatest help it could give is to tell Kremlin crooks and abusers that they are no longer welcome." - Boris Nemtsov, December, 2012.
A year before the above quote was published, Boris Nemtsov was in Ottawa and Toronto to tell Canadian government leaders and the media the truth about Russia under Vladimir Putin. Mr. Nemtsov told MPs that Mr. Putin's regime was robbing Russia blind through endemic corruption, that the Kremlin was systematically shutting down democratic processes, and that freedom of speech and expression were being attacked. Russia, Mr. Nemtsov warned, was on a trajectory towards totalitarianism under Mr. Putin, and there were risks for neighbouring states as well.
Mr. Nemtsov fearlessly exposed corruption at the highest levels of government. In 2012, he exposed the vast extent of Mr. Putin's amassed wealth by publishing a long, embarrassing list of the President's regal palaces. He became a leading critic of the debilitating corruption that marred the Sochi Olympics when he named Putin's childhood friends, Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, as being on the receiving end of lucrative, no-bid, contracts. Most recently, he worked to expose Mr. Putin's war in Ukraine and was the lead organizer of yesterday's march in Moscow.
Just as the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17 was a watershed moment for the conduct of the war in Ukraine, the assassination of Mr. Nemtsov signals a dark new phase for political repression in Mr. Putin's Russia.
Mr. Putin controls everyone and everything in Russia. From the deranged sociopath who may have been driven to rage and murder by Mr. Putin's incessant stream of truth-altering propaganda, to the disgruntled oligarch whose fortunes rise and fall at Mr. Putin's whim, the President is necessarily close to every theory behind the murder.
Wild scenarios about the assassination have emerged from state investigators and media which range from plausible to the outrageously crazy.
It's unlikely that Nemtsov's killers will ever be found. Investigations into other Russian assassinations usually come up "inconclusive" and rarely is justice ever served. One of the alleged killers of Putin critic Alekander Litveneko, who was poisoned with a highly radioactive substance in 2006, was given a seat in the Russian parliament in order to avoid any extradition attempts.
During his 2012 visit to Canada, Mr. Nemtsov was in the midst of a scandal where his phones had been tapped by the FSB and his telephone conversations were recorded and broadcast by state media. During a taxi ride to Parliament Hill, I asked him how he was handling the FSB's harassment and whether he was concerned about his own safety. He laughed off the recordings as an annoyance, but when I pressed him about security, he became serious and said that if "the crooks and thieves" wanted to get him, they would, no matter how many bodyguards he had.
Again and again he was arrested by the FSB, yet it never deterred him from his mission to fight against the corrupt authoritarians that had crippled Russia and muted its people.
In the House of Commons, Mr. Nemtsov called for Canada to adopt Magnitsky legislation – named in honour of a Russian lawyer who was imprisoned, tortured and murdered by the same government officials who he discovered had stolen $250-million from the Russian government. Mr. Nemtsov, along with most other Russian human rights and pro-democracy activists, have argued that by adopting stiff sanctions against the corrupt members of the Putin regime – oligarchs and government officials included – they would be helping protect activists and opposition leaders by presenting a serious consequence that hit them personally.
In Canada, a private members bill to establish Magnitsky legislation, introduced by former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler, never proceeded beyond the committee stage. And when Mr. Nemtsov returned to Moscow from Ottawa, it was easy for our government MPs to forget about the legislation all together. Perhaps Mr. Nemtsov's murder will provide the needed impetus to move forward.
Although Nemtsov's murder could galvanize the opposition in the longterm, it's likely that deeper crackdowns are on the horizon. Mr. Nemtsov's opposition colleague, Alexei Navalny, is currently in jail for distributing flyers for Sunday's rally in Moscow. Other opposition members are being closely tracked and monitored.
Mr. Nemtsov's colleagues will pick up the work that he was currently doing to expose Russian government involvement in the Ukrainian crisis. They will face the same threats that he did. But Canada can help by answering Mr. Nemtsov's plea to target Putin's inner circle and their families with asset and visa freezes. Change in Russian will only come via a movement of pro-democracy activists. We failed Boris, but we now have a responsibility to help others.