Vladimir Putin does not like Boris Nemtsov. He has made this abundantly clear throughout his presidency, including when he demanded that Nemtsov resign from Parliament for calling for peace talks in Chechnya, or when he bizarrely accused the opposition leader of “stealing billions” during a live television show. Not to mention such telling gestures from the Kremlin as Nemtsov’s New Year’s Eve arrest and imprisonment in 2010–11, or the decision in 2011 to deny registration to his party, barring it from the parliamentary election. In fairness, the enmity is mutual: for years, Nemtsov has been one the most relentless critics of the Kremlin leader, detailing and publicizing his record of corruption and abuse, both among Russian citizens and on the world stage.
The recent legislative election in the Yaroslavl Region, where Nemtsov headed the list of the Republican Party of Russia–People’s Freedom Party, was organized in the customary manner, with censorship on local television (even paid ads were not accepted) during the campaign and numerous violations—including “carousel voting” and vote-buying—on the September 8th election day itself. But the plan did not fully work. Official figures across the region ranged from 17 percent for Nemtsov’s party and 24 percent for Putin’s United Russia in central Yaroslavl, where independent monitors were present at polling places, to an incredible 0.5 percent and 60 percent, respectively, in the Tutaev rural district, where no such monitoring was conducted. The overall result, however, put the People’s Freedom Party above the 5 percent threshold required for entering the regional Parliament.
One would think that, although irritating, the presence of Boris Nemtsov in one of Russia’s regional legislatures would not be considered too big of a problem for the Kremlin. But it appears the authorities think otherwise. Russia’s Investigative Committee, headed by close Putin confidant Alexander Bastrykin, initiated two criminal cases against the newly elected lawmaker. One is on the charge of “battery” under Article 116 of the Russian Penal Code, which carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison; the other is on the charge of “public calls to extremist activity” under Article 280.2, which carries up to five years in prison. Both charges, if brought to conviction, would mean that Nemtsov’s Duma seat will be taken away. The second charge would additionally deprive him of the right to run in any future Russian elections, as “extremism” is considered a grave offence.
The “battery” charge stems from an incident on September 5th, when a provocateur from the pro-Kremlin Stal (Steel) movement approached Nemtsov at a campaign rally and threw two raw eggs at him, which drew a response from the opposition leader. Puzzlingly, the “victim” only went to the hospital to complain of “injuries” after the election. The “extremism” charge, meanwhile, was leveled at Nemtsov’s speech at the same September 5th campaign rally. The precise sentence that attracted the interest of prosecutors was: “the liberation of Russia from the crooks and thieves must start from Yaroslavl.” An official spokesman for the Investigative Committee accused Nemtsov of “making a public statement that contained calls for a forceful change of the foundations of the constitutional order and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.” “With this charge, they have admitted that it is crooks and thieves who are in power, and that opposing them constitutes extremist activity,” Nemtsov observed in response to the news.
The opposition leader has already been interrogated this week; the next interrogation is scheduled for September 24th. For now, until the investigative and judicial procedures have been completed, Nemtsov remains a duly elected member of the Duma in Yaroslavl, and will take up his seat when the new legislature meets in early October. The Putin regime has shown yet again that even winning an election, despite all the odds, does not mean getting into office. But Boris Nemtsov—just as Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Yevgeny Roizman in Yekaterinburg, and Galina Shirshina in Petrozavodsk—has clearly demonstrated that the opposition in Russia does have popular support. And that is a fact that the Kremlin will now find difficult to hide.