World leaders on Saturday joined allies of slain Russian opposition leader Boris Y. Nemtsov in mourning the loss of a tireless advocate for democracy in a country increasingly dominated by an autocratic ruler.
Hundreds brought flowers to a bridge near the Kremlin where Nemtsov, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was gunned down just before midnight on Friday.
Supporters saw the hand of the Kremlin in the slaying, but Putin swore that he would do his best to have Nemtsov’s killers brought to justice and ordered a thorough investigation by security agencies.
“He always bluntly and honestly declared his position and defended his point of view,” Putin said in a telegram of condolence sent to Nemtsov's mother and posted on the Kremlin website. “Everything will be done to have the organizers and perpetrators of this despicable and cynical crime get the punishment they deserve.”
Russian Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said agents were considering several motives, including a foreign provocation to destabilize Russia, Islamic extremism, business or personal rivals and “the version connected with internal Ukrainian events.” None of the official scenarios suggested any Kremlin role in the slaying.
State-controlled media also advanced theories about who was behind the killing, with Russia Today television quoting a Kremlin-allied analyst speculating that Nemtsov had created enemies with his “wrong ideas” about Russian involvement in the separatist war racking Ukraine, despite frequent Kremlin denials of such a role. Other pro-Kremlin news sites suggested that Nemtsov, who by some reports was estranged from his wife, was romantically involved with the young woman from Ukraine who was with him when he was killed.
At the time of his death, Nemtsov was preparing a report exposing the extent of Russian troops’ involvement in the Ukraine fighting, fellow opposition leader Ilya Yashin told journalists.
The charismatic 55-year-old Nemtsov was shot six times from a passing car, four of the bullets from a Makarov pistol, the type used by Soviet-era security agents, striking him in the head and torso, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Yelena Alexeyeva said.
Nemtsov’s killing has been condemned by Western leaders who knew him from as long as 20 years ago, when he was a promising young protege of President Boris Yeltsin who rose to be first deputy prime minister in the late 1990s.
British Prime Minister David Cameron called the slaying “despicable” and “callous.” French President Francois Hollande hailed Nemtsov as “a courageous and tireless defender of democracy and a fierce fighter against corruption.”
Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, an opposition leader chased into exile by death threats, accused the Kremlin of involvement, or at least instigation, in Nemtsov’s killing.
“If Putin gave order to murder Boris Nemtsov is not the point. It is Putin’s dictatorship,” Kasparov said via Twitter.
The slaying came just before a rally planned for Sunday against Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. Tass, the official Russian news agency, said the protest march had been called off and a memorial procession to honor Nemtsov planned instead. Moscow authorities had denied a demonstration permit for the original rally but granted one for the mourners’ procession for up to 50,000 participants, Tass said.
Nemtsov was killed in a professional operation most likely organized by Russian nationalists or high-ranking officials, charged Gennady Gudkov, an opposition lawmaker and former KGB officer.
“Boris was certainly under surveillance before the murder carried out by a professional team,” Gudkov said in an interview. “The way the investigation is conducted will soon enough demonstrate whether Russia's top authorities were involved in it or not.
“Foreign criminal hoodlums would never agree to commit anything as daring as this in plain view of the Kremlin, in the area swarming with cameras and security agents.”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko offered a theory connected with the conflict in his country.
“Boris declared that he must make public convincing evidence of Russian armed troops' involvement in Ukraine,” Poroshenko was quoted by Ukrinform news agency as saying. “Someone was scared of this very much. Boris was not, but his executioners were. They killed him.”
The pro-Putin leader of the Russian republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, claimed on Instagram that “Nemtsov's killing was organized by Western special services trying by all means to create an internal conflict in Russia.”
The killing certainly appeared tied to the political divisions and economic crises roiling Russia, political scientist Andrei Kortunov said.
“The losses for the Kremlin’s image are already considerable and they may grow even bigger if this tragedy manages to unite the opposition, until recently torn apart by internal intrigues and squabbles,” said Kortunov, president of New Eurasia Foundation, a Moscow-based think tank.
Natalia Osipova, 65, a music teacher who brought red carnations to the spot where Nemtsov was killed, laid the blame solely on Putin.
“Even if our president is not directly involved in this ugly crime, he created an atmosphere of Stalinist-like times in the country, when he portrayed Nemtsov and other opposition politicians as enemies of the people, untying the hands of those lunatics who could have taken this call as a direct order for violence.”
Times staff writers Loiko reported from Moscow and Williams from Los Angeles.