Wednesday, 4 March 2015
Topical Issue Debate
Assassination of Boris Nemtsov
I am very glad the Minister of State, Deputy Deenihan, is here to take this issue. I was appalled to learn of the brutal murder of Boris Nemtsov last weekend, as were the overwhelming majority of the Irish people. Mr. Nemtsov was a prominent opposition politician in Russia and his RPR Parnas political party is a member of ALDE, the same political grouping to which Fianna Fáil is affiliated at a European level.
Over the course of his life, Mr. Nemtsov worked to speak up for the most marginalised in Russian society. He was a committed democrat who fought to strengthen the political institutions in Russia and he highlighted the scourge of corruption at every opportunity. In recent months, he had also been an outspoken critic of the conflict in Ukraine, which has claimed so many innocent lives. The murder of Boris Nemtsov must also act as a warning sign to all people who believe in liberal democracy in Europe and in Russia. It is evidence that all is not well with the political system in Moscow.
The increasing Russian aggression towards its neighbours and internally towards political opponents is a most frightening development. From what we see and listen to through the media reports, there appears to be an increasing culture of fear in Russia. State authorities are said to act in an exceptionally partisan way in how law and order are maintained and in how laws are implemented. It seems the regime in Moscow is exhibiting increasingly fascist-like tendencies, where state and party merge into one and where some opponents are even forced to leave the country.
We are all aware of the desperate carnage with the loss of life of so many innocent people and we think of one particular incident alone, the shooting down of the civilian aircraft MH19, resulting in the death of 298 innocent people. I mention that in the context of the current Russian foreign policy that has resulted in war in Ukraine with untold devastation and the undermining of that country's sovereignty. As a Parliament, we should be very conscious of the sovereignty of other nations.
The West has responded with sanctions which have had an impact but which have not provided a long-term solution. Even Ireland, a country which has traditionally had a distinctly cordial relationship with Russia, has been touched by this aggression through the infringement of Irish-controlled airspace by Russian military aircraft. This, we have learned, resulted in commercial traffic having to be diverted or suspended when travelling to and from Irish airports. The Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, need to take up this issue directly with their counterparts in the Russian Government. I know from Question Time last week that the Minister had instructed senior officials in his Department to meet the Russian ambassador and senior officials in the Russian embassy. However, at this stage, with another recorded infringement of Irish-controlled airspace, it is time for the Minister and the Minister of State to raise this matter directly with the Russian authorities and to state very clearly that any infringement of Irish-controlled airspace is not acceptable.
I thank Deputy Smith for raising this important matter. In the early hours of last Saturday morning, a prominent Russian opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, was shot dead in central Moscow. His murder was a brutal and cowardly act which was met with widespread shock and disbelief. My colleague, the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, has expressed his deep sadness at Mr. Nemtsov's death and extended his sympathies to his family.
Tributes have poured in for Mr. Nemtsov since his death. He served his country with distinction in many roles, including as former Deputy Russian Prime Minister under President Yeltsin. Mr. Nemtsov was a courageous champion of democratic reforms and a strong advocate for a more open and tolerant Russia. His loss will be deeply felt not just in Russia but around the world.
The high regard in which Mr. Nemtsov was held was evident by the large crowd which attended a vigil in his honour on Sunday. Some 50,000 people turned out to mourn his loss and honour his life. While the vigil march included a wide range of political parties and movements, the attendance of so many ordinary Russia citizens was notable. Their presence in such numbers was a tribute to his legacy as a fearless reformer who was not afraid to speak out against the direction that Russia was taking and the policies being pursued by the current government. Large numbers of mourners also attended his memorial service yesterday. As was the case with most other EU member states, Ireland was represented at the service by our ambassador to Russia.
Mr. Nemtsov's murder highlighted the vulnerability of opposition figures in Russia currently, where any form of criticism of the government is seen as an act of disloyalty. He had been a vocal critic of Russia's actions against Ukraine. In fact, the vigil on Sunday in honour of Mr. Nemtsov replaced an opposition demonstration which he had been instrumental in organising to protest against the economic crisis and Russia's role in the destabilisation of Ukraine.
President Putin has condemned the killing. His spokesperson said that the President had written to Mr. Nemtsov's mother promising that he would personally oversee the investigation into her son's murder. Many theories are in circulation as to the motives for Mr. Nemtsov's murder. For this reason, it is all the more important that the Russian authorities promptly conduct a full and transparent investigation into his killing and that the perpetrators of this callous crime are brought to justice.
There should be no culture of impunity in the face of such an appalling deed. It is also important that the rights to freedom of assembly and expression that Mr. Nemtsov fought so fearlessly to defend are recognised and fully protected.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. As a society, we need better relations with Russia on a political, social and economic basis, which would be to the benefit of both countries and the European Union. There is great potential to grow trade for the benefit of Ireland, the European Union and Russia. However, there is one thing from which the European Union and this country cannot flinch, that is, being strong advocates of the need for democratic reforms in Russia and, as the late Mr. Nemtsov was, being active as a strong advocate for a more open and tolerant Russia. What we have seen in recent times is not acceptable. The Government, at head of Government and ministerial level, must convey in the strongest possible manner to the Russian authorities that what has been happening is not acceptable. There must be no stone left unturned to bring to justice those who carried out the hideous murder of an excellent man who was doing important political work in difficult circumstances.
The most important lesson we can learn from the brutal killing of Mr. Nemtsov is that we can no longer ignore what is happening in Russia. We can no longer say it has no impact on us. We can no longer turn a blind eye when another political opponent of the current regime is silenced or when more innocent victims are killed in Ukraine or elsewhere. We have seen recent reports on concerns in some of the other Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Norway has also expressed concerns about Russian aggression. The Government and our partners in the European Union must say loud and clear that this is not acceptable and that if Russia continues these actions, we will not tolerate them. That message must be sent clearly to President Putin and his government. We cannot pretend that the Russian Government and President are our allies. Carrying out actions that have the characteristics of enemy actions makes a state an enemy. A change in policy by President Putin and his government is needed to build better relations with the European Union and the rest of the world. What happened last weekend was an appalling attack on an innocent man which resulted in the loss of life. It was also an attack on democracy.
As I noted in my opening statement, the murder of Boris Nemtsov was an appalling act, one which must be fully and effectively investigated. A failure to find and prosecute Mr. Nemtsov's killers would raise serious questions about Russia's criminal justice system. A culture of impunity must not be allowed to develop in Russia and cannot be tolerated. In remarks on behalf of all EU member states at yesterday's memorial service the head of the EU delegation to Russia said Mr. Nemtsov had personified values that we held dear: respect for human dignity, a commitment to democracy, a strong civil society and the need for authorities to be publicly accountable. Defending and promoting these fundamental values is becoming increasingly difficult in Russia. Developments in recent years in terms of political pluralism and civil liberties have been disappointing. Although our perspectives may sometimes differ, it is important that we continue to engage with Russia in all areas, including political pluralism, the role of civil society and civil liberties generally.