Think Tank Review: Russia’s think tanks analyzed the implications of the Nemtsov murder, warning that it could usher in a new period of violence and bloodshed within Russian political society.

A man holds a votive candle and the book, "The confession of a rebel", by Boris Nemtsov (pictured on the book's cover) as he lines up to pay last respects during a farewell ceremony inside the Sakharov center in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, March 3, 2015. Mourners are lining up outside a Moscow human rights center for the funeral of murdered Nemtsov. a charismatic Russian opposition leader and sharp critic of President Vladimir Putin, who was gunned down on Friday, Feb. 27, 2015 near the Kremlin. Photo: AP

In February, Russian experts weighed in on the biggest political murder in recent times – the murder of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov at night on Feb. 27 in the center of Moscow. In addition, they analyzed the Minsk peace deal for Ukraine and the intensification of Russia’s diplomatic efforts in its relations with Hungary and Egypt.

The death of Boris Nemtsov

Russia’s think tank experts could not ignore the death of one of the most prominent representatives of the opposition in contemporary Russia – Boris Nemtsov. Analysts, shocked just like the majority of the country’s population, tried to make sense of the situation without jumping to conclusions. They reached consensus opinion on only one idea: a period of “political terror” looms on the horizon for Russia.

With this in mind, Alexey Tokarev of Moscow Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University) urges everyone to stop leveling accusations against the Kremlin or “Western agents,” He remarks that both options are equally futile, even if “unscrupulous citizens are writing both this and the other.” Tokarev makes a comparison with other political murders in Russia (journalist Anna Politkovskaya and Russian politician and ethnographer Galina Starovoitova) and comes to the conclusion that, all the same, they cannot be compared.

Tokarev thinks that the current situation is bleaker than ever and “the likelihood of a popular uprising is greater now than ever.” At the same time, the author poses the question of who really could benefit from the murder of the politician.

However, he cannot find the answer, expressing only the hope that “Boris Nemtsov does not become in death who he was not in life: not Sergey Kirov, whose death unleashed the Great Terror in the Soviet Union and not Franz Ferdinand, whose death was used as the pretext for the launch of the World Wae I.”

Tokarev’s colleague at MGIMO-University, Pavel Demidov, supports him in his presentiments regarding a coming wave of violence. He believes that in the final account, the chief outcome of the high-profile event “will be a wave of aggression washing over our country. Accumulated anger may be channeled into the murder of an opposition politician or mass pro- or anti-government demonstrations.”

Analyst Georgy Bovt from Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP) backs Tokarev in calls for restraint. Bovt thinks that representatives of all political forces are acting very unethically and that the “foul-smelling world of Russian politics would definitely be less foul-smelling if representatives from literally all sides of the political spectrum would stop orchestrating dances on the bones of the murdered.” The analyst takes a detailed look at the main versions of the investigation and rejects all of them to varying degrees. According to him, even if there is something true in them, this truth is hardly likely to be announced publicly. Bovt remarks that “this murder” is really “a testament to the morbid illness of both society and his (Nemtsov’s) political class” but that it is not yet the death of society and Russia has yet to “reach the bottom.”

Chief Editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s website Alexander Baunov brings us back to the issue of the political violence that could sweep over the country. Baunov thinks that Russia has transitioned to a new type of “dictatorship of self-preservation,” where “critics of power do not fear arrests at rallies but murder in alleys.”

Baunov considers as even more frightening the loss of the state monopoly on violence when “repression gets out of control and becomes the creation of the masses.” However, even Baunov does not rush to blame any particular side in the murder of Nemtsov, noting that, “Putin, most likely, will want to investigate this murder which is disadvantageous for him.”

The Minsk Agreements

From left, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, back, are followed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, as they head for the Feb. 11 meeting in Minsk. Photo: AP

In February, experts from Russian think tanks actively discussed the conclusion of the new “Minsk Agreements,” which are designed, if not for the establishment of a lasting peace, then for a truce in the eastern part of Ukraine. The agreements signed in Minsk call for a cease-fire, the withdrawal of heavy artillery, the release and exchange of prisoners, and the provision of pardon and amnesty to conflict participants.

The Minsk Agreements also contain points about the introduction of obligatory constitutional and other reforms within the framework of which Kiev and Donbas are to find the formula for coexistence. “This package of measures” includes a total of 13 points and 1 single note. However the majority of experts agree that it will be extremely difficult to implement them.

Georgy Bovt (CFDP) explains that the implementation of “Minsk II” will meet with obstacles from both sides insofar as it is difficult to imagine “Putin would say ‘I lost and will back down’” and it is just as “impossible to imagine the easy passage of compromise agreements with Donbas in the Rada.” The expert notes, moreover, that the most difficult thing will be to prove the correctness of agreements to many other participants in the conflict “including the private armies of Ukrainian nationalists.”

Bovt’s colleague at CFDP – Alexander Golts – generally expresses extreme skepticism regarding the achieved agreements, considering them “empty.”

In contrast, Program Director at Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) Ivan Timofeev remarks that, even though the Minsk Agreements show signs of being a success, there are “a number of issues” still to resolve. Timofeev thinks that, “A formula for regulation reminiscent of the ‘Chechen variant’ has emerged. This is already an achievement since a vector for settlement has been specified.” “There will be a lot of work,” concludes the expert regarding the prospects for the agreements’ implementation.”

Meanwhile, Andrei Kolesnikov of Carnegie Moscow Center is also unsure of whether the Minsk Agreements will be executed, insofar as “the sides will accuse each other of violating the truce as soon as a pretext appears and the entire structure will collapse.” The analyst considers the participation of world leaders in the peace process to be a “big plus” but notes that it is no panacea and “in general it is not so very simple - everything is at risk of failure.”

MGIMO-University expert Valery Solovey expressed cautious optimism about the agreements.

“Of course the potential for the continuation of war is still considerable,” he says. “But, all the same, I regard the signing of the agreement as a very significant positive sign. Under the current circumstances, one could not expect anything more, and all of the participants in the negotiations understand clearly that any alternative to peace is a great deal worse.”

At the same time, the political analyst remarks that the fate of the Donbas is “unfortunate and terrible” and that it will take colossal resources that neither side has to restore it.”

The prospect of new alliances with Egypt and Hungary

Russian President Vladimir Putin enters a hall for a signing ceremony as a journalist tries to take a picture at the parliament building in Budapest, Hungary on Feb. 17. Photo: AP 

In February, experts at Russian think tanks also pondered the intensification of Russia’s external diplomatic efforts in Europe and the Middle East. In particular, Vladimir Putin’s visits to Egypt and Hungary attracted the attention of analysts. These visits were interpreted as the wish not to end up in total isolation. In this case, there is no unity among analysts regarding the Russian president’s achievements in line with this goal.

Maxim Samorukov Carnegie Moscow Center analyzes Russian-Hungarian relations and comes to the conclusion that there is no special significance about them. At least, the expert believes, there are no benefits or preferences for Russia.

“Right now any, even the most symbolic, manifestations of sympathy on the part of at least one of the leaders of the countries of the European Union are important,” writes the expert. “And Moscow has to… overpay for them.”

To a large degree, says Samorukov, this is a symbolic visit where the clear winner is the Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban.

“Orban does not seriously intend to abrogate anything or re-orient. He needs the flirtations with the Kremlin mostly so that they are not too hard on him in Brussels,” the expert explains. “Orban wants the EU leaders to know that if they too eagerly pressure him about his authoritarian habits, then he might feel insulted and move closer to Moscow in fact.”

RIAC's Alexander Gushchin does not agree with Samorukov. He thinks that mutual pragmatic interest is at the core of the expansion of interaction and that “cooperation” with Russia is a form of self-expression for Orban, a demonstration of his significance to Brussels; he has a number of completely practical reasons.”

Moreover, in the expert’s opinion, the visit demonstrated that “talk of Russia’s isolation is unnecessary even in the European context.”

Fyodor Lukyanov, Chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, thinks Hungary’s position can be considered as an alternative vision of Russia in the European Union. Lukyanov explains that the member-states of the EU are unable to quarrel with Brussels but they aim for at least a minimal degree of independence in their foreign policy activities.

“The actions of Hungary can be interpreted as a symptom, that there are forces in the EU trying to steer a different course, create a different sort of rhetoric,” writes Lukyanov. “However, we understand that in Europe everything depends on countries of a different caliber.”

Some analysts paid more attention to the visit to Egypt. Thus, Yuri Zinin of MGIMO discusses the building of a strong partnership with Egypt noting that, “Neither side hides its hopes for a qualitative leap forward and the development of multifaceted cooperation.” Egypt’s turning its attention towards Russia speaks to the fact that “Russia is in demand in the Arab world.”