27 February 2015

Who is the Opposition: death of a 'Putin critic'

There's been a political assassination in Russia. The victim is Boris Nemtsov, once a deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin and a high-profile opponent of Russia's involvement in Ukraine. That last part may have been enough to get Russia's nationalist rabble riled up at Nemtsov, since people in any country who oppose its foreign policy are likely to be thought of as traitors. Nemtsov himself worried that his stand would get him killed. That his murder was a political act is almost certain, but who done it? Here's another case in which news media shape the narrative possibly without even realizing it. Predictably enough, many headlines on news sites identify Nemtsov as an "Opposition" figure or leader. Just to nudge readers further, some sites identify him as a "Putin critic." This is still breaking news in our part of the world, and Putin himself has condemned the murder as good political form requires, but the way Nemtsov has been presented to the outside world will most likely lead people here to echo the victim's own suspicions. He believed that Putin himself would have him killed, or so he told a Russian website, as the BBC reports. Perhaps we should defer to the fears of a man who dealt with Putin at closer quarters than we ever will, but even an authoritarian bully ought to be considered innocent of each particular crime until proven guilty. An analogy might help keep things in perspective. Let's say some goons killed an American anti-war activist, or for the sake of arguments a prominent anti-war politician, ten years ago. Few of us would leap to the conclusion that George W. Bush or the Republican party had ordered the murder, because we know our own country and we know what our reactionary yahoos are capable of. It's not hard to believe that Russia is just as full of reactionary yahoos who are just as capable of acting on their own initiative to take down a perceived traitor. It would hardly reflect less badly on Russia if Nemtsov has been killed by random reactionary yahoos, yet the authoritarian specter of Putin so haunts the west that many here will automatically assume him responsible for any misfortune suffered by the "Opposition." If we want to see Russia clearly, warts and all, we have to resist the impulse to treat Putin's consolidation of power as the one master narrative, the only thing that's really happening there. A big problem with American attitudes toward the rest of the world is that we look at other countries and only see their leaders. It may be a wider problem, but I suspect that populations less obsessed with the threat of dictatorship have at least a potentially clearer view of other countries. If we look at Russia today and see only Putin, we definitely have a problem. Nemtsov's murder may prove that Russia is a dangerous place, but its danger to us will be all the greater the less carefully we understand its danger to its own people.

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