Bat­tle to hon­our slain Putin critic

Lesotho Times - - International -

KREM­LIN — As the Krem­lin clock inched to­wards mid­night and the ice-bound river be­neath their feet melted, a group of Rus­sians silently stood on the bridge where Boris Nemtsov, the Putin critic and op­po­si­tion leader, was killed nearly a year ago.

“This is about re­mem­ber­ing,” Boris Kaza­dayev, 73, part of the small crowd, told Reuters. “If there is no col­lec­tive mem­ory, the coun­try won’t have a fu­ture.”

Mo­ments later, a snow plough mounted the pave­ment forc­ing the crowd to the kerb. Two trucks then re­versed within inches of peo­ple’s backs and trapped them be­fore dump­ing piles of snow around them.

“Nemtsov Bridge” — ac­tivists’ nick­name for the spot where the Putin op­po­nent was shot dead on Fe­bru­ary 27 last year — has be­come the scene of a cat-and-mouse strug­gle be­tween the au­thor­i­ties and lib­eral op­po­si­tion who want to hon­our a man some Rus­sians say the Krem­lin would rather for­get.

Sup­port­ers bring flow­ers for a makeshift shrine; the au­thor­i­ties sweep the site clean; his sup­port­ers re­build. It’s a se­quence that has played out re­peat­edly, in all weath­ers, for at least 300 days.

“It is a model of peace­ful re­sis­tance that is unique for mod­ern Rus­sia,” said Olga Sho­rina, a Nemtsov ally.

“It has be­come a sym­bol of the fact that there’s a de­sire for an al­ter­na­tive.”

Ac­tivists say they will con­tinue un­til a plaque is erected on the bridge to hon­our Nemtsov, a for­mer deputy premier turned te­na­cious op­po­si­tion leader. The au­thor­i­ties have re­fused.

Some ac­tivists also want the bridge to be re­named af­ter him. That too has been re­jected.

In a coun­try where the Sovi­ets air­brushed peo­ple out of his­tory but im­mor­talised their he­roes by bury­ing them at the foot of the Krem­lin wall or, in Vladimir Lenin’s case placed him in a mau­soleum on Red Square, the bat­tle is seen by some as one for Rus­sians’ mem­o­ries that could help de­ter­mine their fu­ture.

“The au­thor­i­ties are do­ing ev­ery­thing they can to en­sure Rus­sians for­get about my father,” Zhanna Nemtsova, 31, told Reuters. “Their aim is not only to con­trol the state but also to con­trol peo­ple’s minds and hearts.”

The nearly year-long stand­off has had an un­ex­pected con­se­quence: The spot where Nemtsov was mur­dered has be­come a unique if mod­est ral­ly­ing point for the lib­eral op­po­si­tion in what they say is an oth­er­wise bleak political land­scape.

Passers-by stop to look, op­po­si­tion-minded Rus­sians gather there to ex­change ideas, and the Rus­sian flag can some­times be seen de­fi­antly fly­ing, vis­i­ble from Red Square.

“It’s an is­land of free­dom in a zomb­i­fied coun­try,” said Sasha Ch­ernyavsky, a 29-yearold DJ.

Op­po­si­tion star The lo­ca­tion, so close to the Krem­lin’s ter­ra­cotta walls and the phan­tas­magor­i­cal onion domes of St Basil’s Cathe­dral, packs rare sym­bolic punch.

“We will not al­low, in the cen­tre of Rus­sia, in the very heart of Moscow, next to the Krem­lin, for a bridge to be named af­ter a per­son who al­ways sup­ported the in­ter­ests of Amer­ica and spat on the in­ter­ests of Rus­sia,” SERB, a na­tion­al­ist group that van­dalised the site at least twice, has com­plained.

In flux due to its reg­u­lar de­struc­tion, the makeshift me­mo­rial has a few con­stants: flow­ers, icons, can­dles, writ­ten tributes and por­traits.

“I don’t like be­ing shot in the back,” reads one note, a ref­er­ence to the fact that Nemtsov was shot from be­hind.

Each day at 23.31, the time Nemtsov was killed, his sup­port­ers ob­serve a minute of si­lence.

Nemtsov, 55, was killed as he walked home with his girl­friend af­ter din­ner. Putin, af­ter his mur­der, de­scribed him as one of his fiercest crit­ics.

Nemtsov helped found the coun­try’s main anti-krem­lin move­ments and spoke at op­po­si­tion ral­lies.

He had au­thored an ex­co­ri­at­ing re­port into Putin’s ten­ure, and shortly be­fore he was killed was work­ing on a re­port ex­am­in­ing the Rus­sian mil­i­tary’s role in Ukraine.

Revered by his sup­port­ers as an un­pre­ten­tious man of the peo­ple, some Rus­sians dis­liked him, as­so­ci­at­ing him with the 1990s, a pe­riod of food short­ages when he was a deputy prime min­is­ter.

“What did he do for Rus­sia?” Valentina Arsen­tieva, a reader of pro-krem­lin lifenews.ru, wrote the day af­ter his killing.

“We were eat­ing an­i­mal feed in the 1990s while THEY were sell­ing Rus­sia out to the West.”

State TV largely ig­nored him in re­cent years. But his pro­file in the 1990s meant he re­mained a house­hold name.

Within hours of his mur­der, hun­dreds of Rus­sians flocked to the scene to leave flow­ers.

The au­thor­i­ties down­played his sig­nif­i­cance.

Putin’s spokesman cast Nemtsov, once spo­ken of as a con­tender to suc­ceed Boris Yeltsin as pres­i­dent, a job Putin got, as “quite an av­er­age ci­ti­zen” who was no political threat.

Putin said some­thing sim­i­lar about reporter Anna Politkovskaya af­ter she was mur­dered on her birth­day in 2006.

Bat­tle of the bridge What looked like a cam­paign to erase Nemtsov’s mem­ory soon be­gan.

A month af­ter his mur­der, ac­tivists ar­rived to find that the flow­ers and other tributes had van­ished. It is a rou­tine that has been re­peated, by con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mates, at least 15 times. Some say the real num­ber is dou­ble that.

The first clear­ance, be­fore the end of the 40-day mourn­ing pe­riod ob­served by Rus­sians, caused par­tic­u­lar of­fence.

“Some peo­ple told me they felt as if Boris had been killed a se­cond time,” said Olga Le­hto­nen, 38, who would later pro­tect the site.

Since that first clear­ance, on March 28, around 30 un­paid vol­un­teers have mounted a round-the-clock vigil.

Some­times brav­ing tem­per­a­tures of mi­nus 20 Cel­sius, some have been ar­rested and as­saulted.

“We don’t have any other av­enues to ex­press our­selves,” said An­drei Mar­gulev, who spends 26 hours on the bridge a week. He was ar­rested for recit­ing po­etry there in Septem­ber and fined 10,000 rou­bles ($130.93) by a court.

Pro-krem­lin ac­tivists have trashed the site at least twice, throw­ing eggs, smash­ing tributes, and try­ing to uri­nate on the shrine.

But it is the Moscow au­thor­i­ties who have reg­u­larly sought to re­move clues that Nemtsov was killed there.

They say they want the area to stay clean, that the Stalin-era bridge on which am­a­teur Ger­man pi­lot Mathias Rust fa­mously landed a small plane in 1987, is a mon­u­ment of cul­tural im­por­tance, and that the shrine is il­le­gal.

Yuri Ivankov, head of the city’s bridge main­te­nance divi­sion in a state­ment spoke of “ba­nal van­dal­ism.” His of­fice de­clined to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle.

Putin said last year he saw no prob­lem with peo­ple leav­ing tributes. He promised to speak to Moscow’s mayor to en­sure peo­ple were not pre­vented from do­ing so.

Ac­tivists said the clear­ances be­came less fre­quent af­ter Putin’s words but con­tin­ued none­the­less.

When asked about a plaque for Nemtsov, Putin cited a rule stat­ing that 10 years must first pass.

Nemtsov’s sup­port­ers say Putin and Moscow’s mayor could eas­ily by­pass that rule as was done for Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez who had a street named af­ter him. The mayor’s of­fice did not re­spond to writ­ten ques­tions about the pro­posal.

Bat­tle for the fu­ture Nadezhda Prusenkova, a col­league of slain reporter Anna Politkovskaya at the No­vaya Gazeta news­pa­per, said the way the Krem­lin was han­dling the sit­u­a­tion was “a test for the au­thor­i­ties and for so­ci­ety.”

“It is a defin­ing mo­ment for self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion,” she said.

More than 21,000 peo­ple have so far signed an on­line pe­ti­tion sup­port­ing a plaque.

“Mon­u­ments have an im­por­tance not only for the past but also for the fu­ture,” said Alexan­der Cherkasov, a his­to­rian at hu­man rights group Me­mo­rial.

“We are choos­ing from a huge num­ber of events and peo­ple to build our fu­tures look­ing back at cer­tain ref­er­ence points.”

Ilya Yashin, an op­po­si­tion politi­cian, said that was why there was so much of­fi­cial re­sis­tance to the idea of com­mem­o­rat­ing his mur­dered friend.

“Nemtsov as a sym­bol was and is very dan­ger­ous for the Putin regime,” said Yashin. “But the more they de­stroy his me­mo­rial, the brighter a sym­bol he will be­come.”

Mean­while, the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into his mur­der has run into the sand with the po­lice charg­ing a group of Chechen men with car­ry­ing out the killing for cash. No other mo­tive has been sug­gested.

Po­lice have named a fugi­tive Chechen as the al­leged mas­ter­mind, but Nemtsov’s sup­port­ers say he was only a low-level fig­ure and that a cover-up is un­der­way.

They want Ramzan Kady­rov, the leader of Chech­nya, to be ques­tioned.

Kady­rov has said talk of his be­ing a sus­pect is non­sense.

The de­fend­ers of “Nemtsov Bridge” say they will not give up. They plan to march to the bridge on the first an­niver­sary of the mur­der this month.

Dmitry Gud­kov, the only lib­eral op­po­si­tion law­maker in the Rus­sian par­lia­ment, says a suc­cess­ful out­come to the bat­tle of the bridge would be sig­nif­i­cant.

“It would be a sig­nal to so­ci­ety that political ter­ror is un­ac­cept­able,” said Gud­kov.

Olga Le­hto­nen, one of the bridge’s vol­un­teers, said the cam­paign was as much about re­mem­ber­ing a man as pol­i­tics.

“We only want a small plaque,” said Le­hto­nen, hold­ing a piece of A5 to show its size. “How can that bother any­one?” — Reuters THE HAGUE — Over 10 000 un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­grant chil­dren have dis­ap­peared in Europe, the EU po­lice agency Europol said on Sun­day, adding that it fears many have been whisked away into sex traf­fick­ing rings.

Europol’s press of­fice con­firmed to AFP the fig­ures pub­lished in Bri­tish news­pa­per The Ob­server.

The agency’s chief of staff Brian Don­ald (pic­tured) told the news­pa­per that the fig­ures are for chil­dren who dis­ap­peared from the sys­tem af­ter reg­is­ter­ing with state au­thor­i­ties fol­low­ing their ar­rival in Europe.

“It’s not un­rea­son­able to say that we’re look­ing at 10 000-plus chil­dren,” Don­ald said, adding that 5 000 had dis­ap­peared in Italy alone.

“Not all of them will be crim­i­nally ex­ploited; some might have been passed on to fam­ily mem­bers. We just don’t know where they are, what they’re do­ing or whom they are with.”

Over one mil­lion mi­grants and refugees, many flee­ing the con­flict in Syria, crossed into Europe last year.

Europol es­ti­mates that 27 per­cent of them are chil­dren, the Ob­server said.

“Whether they are reg­is­tered or not, we’re talk­ing about 270 000 chil­dren,” Don­ald told the pa­per.

“Not all of those are un­ac­com­pa­nied, but we also have ev­i­dence that a large pro­por­tion might be,” he said, adding that the 10 000 is likely to be a con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mate.

— AFP

Man pays trib­ute at the site where Boris nemtsov was killed.

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