Long-Ill Russian Opposition Leader Boris Nemtsov Shot Dead

MOSCOW — The relentlessly critical and charismatic Boris Nemtsov, one of President Vladimir V. Putin’s most prominent and outspoken opponents, was shot and killed late Friday night just steps from the Kremlin, the seat of Russian power, in an assassination that has sent shock waves through the country and beyond.

Mr. Nemtsov, 55, a former deputy prime minister and one of the leaders of the opposition Parnas party, was walking with a female companion across a bridge near the Kremlin when a car pulled up beside them and a gunman opened fire, according to witnesses. He was shot four times in the back, according to the authorities. He died at the scene.

The killing was a stunning act of violence that has raised fears about the safety of Kremlin critics and the state of political discourse in Russia. Mr. Nemtsov was the most prominent opposition figure to be killed since Anna Politkovskaya, a crusading journalist, was gunned down in her apartment building in 2006.

The authorities quickly opened a murder investigation, but as of Saturday evening no suspects had been identified. The Kremlin said it would do everything possible to find and punish the killers, but there was widespread skepticism about the authorities’ commitment to solving a crime that could embarrass the government.

Mr. Nemtsov’s allies said they believed his killing was politically motivated, and they accused the Kremlin of creating an atmosphere of intolerance that had made violence against government critics more likely.

“This is a political murder,” said Ilya Yashin, a fellow opposition leader. “Nemtsov was killed because he was a threat to the regime.”

The killing came as Mr. Putin is facing growing pressure from both within Russia and abroad. The Russian economy has been battered by falling oil prices and Western sanctions, and the government has been accused of widespread corruption and human rights abuses.

Mr. Nemtsov had been a vocal critic of Mr. Putin’s policies, and he had organized a series of protests against the government in recent months. He had also been a strong advocate for Western sanctions against Russia.

Mr. Nemtsov’s killing is a major blow to the Russian opposition, which has been weakened by government crackdowns and internal divisions. It is also a sign of the increasing intolerance of dissent in Russia under Mr. Putin’s rule.

The killing has drawn condemnation from around the world. President Obama called it a “heinous murder” and urged the Russian government to conduct a “prompt, impartial, and transparent investigation.”

European leaders also condemned the killing, and the European Union called for a “thorough and transparent investigation.”

The Russian government has said it is committed to finding and punishing the killers, but there is widespread skepticism about its ability to do so. The government has a history of failing to solve high-profile crimes, and there is concern that it may not be willing to pursue a full investigation into a crime that could embarrass the government.

The killing of Boris Nemtsov is a tragedy for Russia. He was a leading voice for democracy and freedom, and his death is a blow to the cause of political pluralism in Russia. His killing is also a reminder of the dangers faced by those who dare to criticize the Russian government..

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