In unexpected numbers, about 50,000 Russians marched in Moscow on Sunday in memory of Boris Nemtsov, a prominent pro-democracy figure gunned down just two days before. Yet the purpose of the march was not only to memorialize what he stood for. As another dissident, Gennady Gudkov, told Reuters: “If we can stop the campaign of hate that’s being directed at the opposition, then we have a chance to change Russia.”
A state-run hate campaign has indeed escalated against domestic critics of the policies of President Vladimir Putin, especially since Russia took the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea last spring. Mr. Nemtsov, a former vice premier, was a critic of that land grab. He also was reportedly ready to expose information about Russian forces in Ukraine.
In a speech last March, Mr. Putin had warned of a “bunch of national traitors” bent on creating discord. And the images of Nemtsov and others had recently hung outside a Moscow bookstore that stated: “The fifth column: there are strangers among us.”
The names or real motives of those who killed Nemtsov may never be exposed. His murder is the highest-profile political assassination during 15 years of Putin’s rule. But few can disagree that an atmosphere of demonization now consumes Russia, perhaps having driven Nemtsov’s killers to assume that personal attacks on him could justify his murder.
In a recent Facebook posting, Nemtsov wrote: “I can’t remember such a level of general hatred as the one in Moscow today.” And after his killing, another prominent dissident, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, wrote, “Now everyone from the blogger at his apartment desk to President Putin himself is searching for enemies, accusing one another of provocation. What is wrong with us?”
Nemtsov was not above personal attacks on Putin, even as he was subject to official attacks. And therein lies a larger problem not only in Russia but in how leaders in Europe and the United States have also demonized Putin rather than sticking to the high ground of criticizing his actions. At times, both President Obama and German leader Angela Merkel have described Putin in disparaging personal terms. A focus in the West on the personal element of Putin himself has contributed to “smart” sanctions that target the financial assets of those closest to him.
American statesman Henry Kissinger has argued that “the demonization of Putin is not a policy. It is an alibi for the absence of one.” From his own dealings with the Russian leader, he says Putin is not an easy person to deal with, “but go through Russian history and show me that there ever was an easy person to deal with. It’s been the essence of that country.”
Ms. Merkel, of all Western leaders, has done the most to keep in close contact with Putin and treat him with dignity in trying to find a solution to the Ukraine crisis. As former American diplomat Robert Blackwill wrote in National Interest magazine, “A realistic and lasting solution [in Ukraine] would have to reflect the national interests and protect the dignity of both sides, including President Putin, yet most in Washington want to treat Putin as if he were Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi.”
Even in past demonizations of those late dictators, the United States often found ways to negotiate with them. Diplomats err when they attribute all bad actions to one person rather than look at the background and circumstances of a leader’s actions or find incentives for good behavior. Simply removing the “bad guy” in a conflict often does not make the conflict go away.
In his actions, Putin has much to answer for, not least being the climate of hate that comes from harsh and dangerous characterization of his opponents. If the real killers of Nemtsov are ever revealed, the reasons for putting him on an “enemies list” for murder might also be revealing about Moscow’s politics of vilification, and begin to erode it. Perhaps then someday Russians will not need to march in the streets to end campaigns of hate.