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In message to Putin, DC names plaza after slain critic

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Russian President Vladimir Putin / AFP PHOTO / Sputnik / Alexey NIKOLSKY

Three years after prominent Vladimir Putin critic Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in Moscow, the liberal politician’s supporters gathered on Tuesday to name a plaza outside Russia’s Washington embassy in his honor.

In the years since opposition champion Nemtsov was shot dead on a bridge under the walls of the Kremlin, US politics has been poisoned by debate over Moscow’s alleged covert backing for President Donald Trump’s rise to power.

Ties between Washington and Moscow have plunged to a post-Cold War low, and Nemtsov’s family and supporters found willing ears when they lobbied to have a section of avenue outside the embassy named after the campaigner.

“The street sign directly outside the Russian embassy will serve as an enduring reminder to Vladimir Putin and to those who support him that they cannot use murder and violence and intimidation to silence the voices of freedom and dissent,” Senator Marco Rubio said.

The move to re-name the plaza did not come from Trump’s government, but from Nemtsov’s family and his successors in Russia’s pro-democracy movement, who won support from both the US capital’s Democrat-led city council and Republican hawks like Rubio.

The State Department’s Acting Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Wess Mitchell was seen attending the ceremony, but there were no more senior Trump administration figures.

Nemtsov’s daughter, rights activist Zhanna Nemtsova and his friend Vladimir Kara-Murza, chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, did address the small crowd of reporters and massed ranks of news cameras at the unveiling.

Kara-Murza and other speakers recalled that Moscow’s previous, then Soviet, embassy in Washington was on a street that was renamed after renowned dissident Andrei Sahkarov, and noted that the former regime had fallen.

Nemtsov, he said, attended the opening of the new embassy on what is now Boris Nemtsov Plaza in Washington’s leafy inner suburbs in 1994 when, as the then governor of Nizhny Novgorod, he was the guest of Putin’s predecessor, President Boris Yeltsin.

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- 'A more hopeful Russia' -

Yelstin, Kara-Murza said, had pointed to Nemtsov at the ceremony and said: "Keep an eye on this young man. One day he will be president of Russia."

"Russian history has a funny way of making the wrong turns," Kara-Murza said.

"Boris Nemtsov did not become president, but he did become something very very important. To many people in our country .. he became the face and the embodiment of a very different Russia.

"A freer, more democratic, more hopeful Russia," he said.

Nemtsova thanked the American officials who arranged the name change, and paid tribute to the Russians who try to maintain a floral tribute to her father on the bridge in Moscow where he was murdered, despite vandalism from Putin's supporters

The plaque is only the latest round in a series of tit-for-tat gestures that have undermined US-Russian ties.

In December 2016, after Trump won the election but before he took office, the then outgoing US president Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and closed two diplomatic properties.

This was in response to US intelligence reports that Putin had ordered a propaganda and computer hacking campaign to aid Trump and undermine his Democratic Party opponent Hillary Clinton.

Trump denied for months that there was proof that Moscow had favored his unexpected victory, but a US special prosecutor was appointed to investigate and has begun to issue indictments.

Meanwhile, Moscow has ordered that the US mission in Moscow be scaled back, and diplomats on both sides continue to complain of provocations and harrassment by the others' agents.

Renaming the Washington plaza is a less aggressive response to Russia, but the use of Nemtsov's name is expected to annoy Putin, who accuses US agencies of fomenting domestic opposition.

- 'Moscow-backed strongman' -

Nemtsov, one of the most vocal of Putin's critics, was gunned down shortly before midnight on February 27, 2015, while walking across a bridge a short distance from the Kremlin.

In 2017, a court found a former security officer from Chechnya guilty of the murder and sentenced him to 20 years. Four other men were found guilty of involvement in the killing.

But Nemtsov's allies insist the authorities have failed to bring the masterminds to justice and point the finger at Chechnya's Moscow-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov and the Kremlin itself.

On Sunday, several thousand Russians, including surviving opposition figures like Alexei Navalny, marched in Moscow in Nemtsov's memory and ahead of next month's presidential poll.

Putin is expected to easily win the election, but the opposition and international critics are just as sure to argue that his grip on politics and the media ensured an undemocratic race.


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