Two years after the murder of Russian opposition activist Boris Nemtsov, Russians took to the streets to commemorate him and remind the world that the real perpetrators are still not punished.

The Feb. 26 march in memory of Boris Nemtsov brought together about 15,000 people. Photo: the Boris Nemtsov March's facebook page 

Regardless of the fact that the protest movement in Russia is in decline, the figure of opposition activist Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered in central Moscow two years ago, brings together the country's disintegrated opposition.

On Feb. 26 liberal and democratic activists took to the streets to commemorate harsh Kremlin critic Nemtsov during the rally that has become the largest protest event in 2017 so far. According to the organizers of the march, it brought together about 15,000 people. However, police claim that only five thousand people participated in the protests. By comparison, last year almost 25,000 people took to the streets, to quote the opposition. In 2015, up to 70,000 people attended the march to commemorate Nemtsov. Most importantly, the rallies in his memory took place also in other Russian cities, including St. Petersburg, Kazan, Kirov, Novosibirsk, Perm, Ulyanovsk and others.

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With the probe into the Nemtsov murder incomplete, the protesters demanded to hold the perpetrators accountable, chanted anti-Kremlin and anti-corruption slogans and called for political freedoms. At the same time, the participants of the rally demanded to withdraw Russian troops from Syria and resolve the Ukrainian standoff.

“Syria is the Second Afghanistan,” “Stop Repressions in Crimea!” “Russia Without Putin,” “Freedom to political prisoners,” "War with Ukraine is a Crime of Putin," read some of the black-lined papers. According to the organizers of the march, police officers took off one of the most provocative placards “Putin is War,” yet the protesters started chanting the slogan.

The Feb. 26 march in memory of Boris Nemtsov brought together about 15,000 people. Photo: the Boris Nemtsov March's facebook page 

Many of Russia’s prominent opposition campaigners attended the Boris Nemtsov March in Moscow, including anti-corruption whistleblower and presidential candidate Alexey Navalny, former parliamentarian Gennady Gudkov, Yabloko Party leader Grigory Yavlinsky as well as Mikhail Kasyanov, the leader of the People’s Freedom Party and a former Russian prime minister. In the beginning of the demonstration the latter was attacked by an unknown individual and splashed with a bright green liquid.

The plight of the Russian opposition

Even though the Feb. 26 protests were peaceful in general and took place without large-scale arrests (only those who tried to instigate public unrest were taken into custody), the incident with Kasyanov indicates that the Russian opposition has been facing even more challenges and pressure since the start of the civil war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. After the Nemtsov murder, the plight of the Russian opposition was only exacerbated, with the authorities discrediting and marginalizing its representatives.

In fact, many Russians started using the words “opposition” and “liberal” in a derogatory context due to their distrust toward democracy, according to many experts. This is the result in part from informational campaigns against the opposition by Russian media and in part from the general disappointment with the 1990s liberal reforms, as well as the intellectual gap between some opposition leaders and ordinary people and the lack of unity within the opposition itself, as Leonid Gozman, a democratic activist, said during an event in Carnegie Moscow Center in the late October in 2016.

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“The authoritarian regime in Russia will prevent the emergence of new powerful liberal forces in Russia,” Andrei Kolesnikov, an expert from Carnegie Moscow Center, told in a 2016 interview to Russia Direct. “If such a party emerges and poses a serious challenge to the authorities like opposition leader Alexei Navalny did, it will be either destroyed or discredited and marginalized.”

Nemtsov, Kasyanov and the Chechen trace

Actually, Kasyanov became one of the key targets of the pro-government protesters. He is a well-known figure within the Russia opposition. He was the co-chairman of the People’s Freedom Party with Nemtsov and also marked himself as a harsh Kremlin critic. However, the authorities marginalized him as well. For example, last year before the 2016 anniversary of the Nemtsov murder, a campaign against Kasyanov started: on February 9, 2016, an unknown individual described Kasyanov as an “American agent” and threw a cake in his face in a Moscow restaurant.

The attacks persisted in the city of Vladimir, when some pro-Kremlin activists threw eggs at him and were chanting “Kasyanov is a traitor”. Finally, notorious Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov posted a video in February 2016 showing Kasyanov in the crosshairs of a gun — a move that was seen by many as overt intimidation.

Because the Kremlin didn’t complete the investigation into the Nemtsov murder, many Russian political experts and observers, including Nemtsov’s supporters and members of his family, speculated that Kadyrov might have been behind the incident.

“To be sure, no direct evidence has so far emerged tying Kadyrov to Nemtsov’s killing. And despite tensions and differences with Kadyrov, Nemtsov didn’t appear to pose a threat to the Chechen leader. The killing remains, to a large extent, a mystery,” wrote Yuri Korgunyuk in his Russia Direct column last year, adding, “The Chechen version of the Nemtsov murder remains a sort of taboo for investigators.”