Reports by CNN says Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot and killed Friday night in central Moscow. The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation said this in a statement Saturday, prompting immediate speculation from fellow opposition figures that the killing was targeted.
A deputy prime minister in the late 1990s under President Boris Yeltsin, Nemtsov had been one of current President Vladimir Putin’s most vocal critics.
Putin quickly condemned the killing of Nemtsov and expressed his condolences to his family, the Kremlin said. Putin also ordered three law enforcement agencies to put together a task force to investigate the shooting, Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported.
A criminal case has been opened for murder and weapons trafficking, the investigative committee said.
Nemtsov was a top official with the Republican Party of Russia/Party of People’s Freedom, a liberal opposition group. He had most recently been critical of the Kremlin’s handling of the Ukraine crisis.
Opposition leader Ilya Yashin said his friend had been working on a report about Russian troops and their involvement in Ukraine.
Nemtsov’s death comes two days before a large opposition rally was set to take place in Moscow. Nemtsov had earlier Friday done a radio interview putting out the call to people to turn out for the rally Sunday.
After his death, party leaders decided to hold a mourning march in downtown Moscow, Itar-Tass reported.
Nemtsov was walking with a female friend just before midnight across a bridge that can be seen from the Kremlin, when a car pulled up and someone opened fire.
The area in the center city is normally busy on a Friday night, though the weather was cold and wet.
Investigators were talking with his companion, a friend from Ukraine who wasn’t wounded, early Saturday. A CNN crew also observed white cars being pulled over by authorities near the scene of the shooting.
Putin said he suspected it was a contract hit meant to cause political discord, according to the President’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.
A man like Nemtsov had many enemies, experts said.
Nemtsov, 55, had been arrested several times in the past for speaking against Putin’s government.
The most recent arrests were in 2011 when he protested the results of parliamentary elections and in 2012 when tens of thousands protested against Putin.
In a restaurant interview with CNN’s Anthony Bourdain last year he lamented the situation for business owners.
“This is a country of corruption. And if you have business, you are in a very unsafe situation. Everybody can press you and destroy your business. That’s it,” Nemtsov said.
In the same interview, he did offer a bit of optimism.
“This is my country. The Russian people are in bit of trouble. Russian court doesn’t work. Russian education decline every year. I believe that Russia has a chance to be free. Has a chance. It’s difficult, but we must do it,” he said.
Nemtsov was also a vocal critic of the 2014 Winter Olympics held in Sochi. He published a report in 2013 describing the Sochi games as one of the most “outrageous swindles” in recent Russian history. He claimed that up to 60% of the final cost — or $30 billion — had been embezzled.
World chess champion-turned opposition activist Garry Kasparov tweeted extensively about Nemtsov’s death.
“When we argued, Boris would tell me I was too hasty, that in Russia you had to live a long time to see change. Now he’ll never see it. RIP,” he wrote in one.