• World

Boris Nemtsov and Russia’s Breaking Point

4 minute read

The Brazen murder of Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov is the latest confirmation that the relationship between the West and Russia is irretrievably broken–and will remain so as long as Vladimir Putin is in power.

I knew Boris very well. He was brash and good-natured, always speaking his mind. He believed in the Russian people, with a hunger for real democracy and a free market. I agreed. So when Putin took power in 2000, we were torn.

On the one hand, it was clear that Putin was no democrat. But could you blame him? Mikhail Gorbachev’s combination of political and economic liberalization helped precipitate the Soviet collapse. Putin wasn’t going to repeat that failed experiment. But neither did he seem intent on restoring the Soviet empire. As a little-known outsider, Putin wasn’t stained by the shortcomings and corruption of the Russian political class.

Boris and I believed that if you improved the Russian economy enough, it would ultimately pave the way for real reform on the political side. We thought Putin had the best chance to make that happen. In January 2000, Boris and I wrote a joint op-ed for the New York Times, dubbing Putin “Russia’s best bet.” Given his “commitment to the national interest,” we argued, “it is difficult to see how to do better.”

Over the decade to come, the Russian economy rebounded, enriching a broad swath of the population (and a handful of oligarchs at the top, who reaped staggering rewards). In 1999, per capita income was $1,300. Today, it’s $14,600.

So what went wrong? Just about everything else.

Some of the mistakes were Washington’s. There was a legitimate perception in Russia that the U.S. didn’t care about Russian preferences and core principles. But the fundamental failures came from within Russia. Our hope that economic strength could lead to political reform wasn’t meant to be. The economy may have surged, but without underlying resilience and diversification. Economic growth was a one-trick pony, driven by revenue from high oil and gas prices. In 1999, oil and gas accounted for less than half of Russia’s export revenue. By 2013, it was more than two-thirds.

That same lack of diversification stymied political change. Putin used the economic windfall and the popularity that came with it to hollow out political institutions and silence competing voices, consolidating power under one-man rule. He squeezed out any room for political plurality, leaving alternative levers of power brittle and irrelevant. He cast supporters of the West as dangerous enemies of the state. That’s why figures like Garry Kasparov fled the country.

Boris Nemtsov stayed. Was it bravery? Not exactly. Call it hopefulness and an inability to stop himself: he was a restless man of emotional impulse. In recent months, he was looking into evidence of Russian troops in Ukraine and was about to release a scathing report.

Do I think Putin had him killed? No. The murder is embarrassing for Putin and actually reveals weakness rather than strength. In recent months, Putin has used a different tactic, releasing from prison dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of Pussy Riot. He wanted to reflect the magnanimity that comes with absolute power. Nemtsov’s murder projects the opposite.

Yet on many levels, Putin is to blame. He created a system in which the murder of a major opposition figure became thinkable. Boris’ killing is the most dramatic indication that the Kremlin strategy of boosting its political power by demonizing the West and Western sympathizers is working. Putin can’t back down, and things will only worsen.

Boris’ death confirms just how misplaced our bet on Putin was. We’ll miss you, Boris Efimovich.

Foreign-affairs columnist Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com