Moscow // Thousands of Russians on Saturday honoured the memory of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down near the Kremlin a year earlier in the most high-profile assassination of Vladimir Putin’s rule.
Anti-Kremlin activists urged ordinary Russians to join them on a memorial march through central Moscow, with other commemorative events planned across the country and abroad.
Before the start of the march people brought flowers and candles to the bridge near the Kremlin walls where Nemtsov, a jovial 55-year-old with a mop of black curly hair, was killed.
The US ambassador John Tefft was among those who came to pay respects, laying a wreath with a ribbon saying “From the American people”.
On the eve of the anniversary, Dmitry Gudkov, one of the few independent voices in the Russian parliament’s lower house, said he suggested that deputies observe a moment of silence in Nemtsov’s memory but most of his colleagues refused.
Authorities allowed the opposition to hold a march through the city centre but forbade activists from marching to the bridge where Nemtsov’s allies have struggled to maintain a makeshift shrine.
“The march in Nemtsov’s memory is also a march demanding a normal country and normal state where contract killings in the form similar to public executions do not take place,” wrote top opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister in the government of Boris Yeltsin, was gunned down shortly before midnight on February 27 last year while walking across a bridge a short distance from the Kremlin with his Ukrainian girlfriend.
Mr Putin, whose rule has seen the steady suppression of independent media and opposition parties since he came to power in 2000, branded the killing a “provocation” and promised an all-out effort to catch the killers.
"Who dared?" a furious Mr Putin asked his aides after Nemtsov was hit in the back by four shots, the country's top opposition Novaya Gazeta reported this week.
Within weeks five men – all Chechens from Russia’s restive North Caucasus – were arrested and charged with murder. Among them is Zaur Dadayev, a member of a Chechen interior ministry battalion accused of being the gunman. They are now awaiting trial for what investigators say was a contract killing carefully planned over months.
But Nemtsov’s family and allies insist the authorities have failed to bring the masterminds to justice and point the finger of blame at Chechnya’s Moscow-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov -- and the Kremlin itself.
Political observers and anti-Kremlin activists say that over the past year things have only become worse, with tolerance for dissent shrinking.
Earlier this month, men – apparently from the North Caucasus – threw a cake at Nemtsov’s ally, former prime minister-turned-opposition activist Mikhail Kasyanov, and shouted threats at him.
The Kremlin downplayed the attack, saying it should be in no way linked to Mr Kadyrov.
Two weeks later unidentified attackers threw a cake at Mr Navalny.
Both attacks took place shortly after Mr Kadyrov posted an Instagram image of Mr Kasyanov in the crosshairs of a sniper’s rifle and called the opposition “enemies of the people”.
"They are trying to make the harrassment of the opposition look like a farce but this does not mean that directors of the cheap comedies would refuse more brutal genres," the liberal daily Vedomosti said in an editorial.
* Agence France-Presse