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25th Feb 2024

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Putin military defeat is just the beginning, Russian activist says

  • Zhanna Nemtsova (l) with Slovak president Zuzana Čaputová last week (Photo: Nora Benakova)
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Europe should help Ukraine defeat the Russian army, but also offer support to Russian critics of the Kremlin, Zhanna Nemtsova, the daughter of murdered Russian opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, has said.

"I hope Europeans understand that it will only be good for Russia if the Russian army is defeated," she told EUobserver.

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"I say it as a Russian patriot: changing the image of [Russian president Vladimir] Putin as a strongman will be a powerful trigger, the necessary precondition for political change in our country," she said.

"Then we can start the process of democratisation. Time is crucial — it's not like in the 1990s, we can't lose years again. Each month of Putinism is disastrous for our future," she added.

Nemtsova spoke to EUobserver in Bratislava, which, last week, became the sixth capital city to name a street outside the Russian embassy after her late father, including also Kyiv, Prague, Sofia, Vilnius, and Washington.

He was gunned down on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge on 27 February 2015 — seven years almost to the day before Russia's current invasion of Ukraine — after he started gathering material for a report on the Kremlin's involvement in the previous war in eastern Ukraine.

But while his murder caused outrage in the West, nobody really took him seriously back then, Nemtsova noted.

"Many European leaders now acknowledge it was a mistake not to listen to voices in Russia who had warned them about the danger of Vladimir Putin's leadership," she said.

Key EU member states — Germany and France — had continued their "political appeasement" of Russia, with slogans such as "change through trade", Nemtsova said.

But "politicians from those same countries are now quoting my father that Putin equals war and crisis," she added.

The 2022 invasion was a watershed which led international bodies such as the Council of Europe, a human-rights watchdog in Strasbourg, France, to expel Russia.

"It was the right decision," Nemtsova said.

Russian propaganda against "national traitors" was a factor in her father's death and anti-Western propaganda has only intensified in Russia in recent times, she noted.

But the brutality of the war has changed minds in Europe, she said.

"I have visited many [EU] countries and I think that on a large scale, Russian propaganda does not work in Europe now, as most Europeans sympathise with Ukraine," Nemtsova said.

The 38-year old currently lives in Portugal with her husband, but even though she opposes Putin's war, she says she feels "responsible" for it as a Russian.

"Responsibility is different from guilt. I am not guilty, I did not commit war crimes, I did not support the annexation of Crimea, and morally and factually I am not responsible. But I recognise the disaster and want to help Ukrainians — that's how I understand responsibility," she said.

"My guess is that between 5 to 10 percent of Russians would share my view, not even those who are against the war feel the same," she added.

But "it's my country. I can't just say — well, I was born in Russia but now I'm Portuguese," she said.

The Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom which Nemtsova established in Germany in 2015 recently announced a call for five two-year scholarships for Ukrainian citizens and plans to add more.

But even as Europe continues to send arms and money to Kyiv and to welcome Ukrainian refugees, it should not forget those Russians who also want change, Nemtsova said.

EU sanctions have made it harder for Russians of all kinds to have contact with the outside world, she said.

And this is why she asked Slovak president Zuzana Čaputová to create a "humanitarian visa" for Russian dissidents, the same way Lithuania has done.

"Isolation is contributing to a growing disconnection of Russia with the global world. I understand its motives but we should be careful to separate between Putin and his people," Nemtsova said.

"There is also a need for solidarity with Russians who resist Putin. They are mostly young, their activities are underground and decentralised due to repressions," she said.

"I would not be able to point a finger at a concrete name of a likely future [Russian] leader. But we must support them," she added.

"The debate in Europe is very much centred around the personality of Putin but we shouldn't forget the legacy of [jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei] Navalny or Nemtsov — they have also represented the Russians," Nemtsova said.

Author bio

Lucia Virostková is a freelance journalist in Slovakia.

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