- The Washington Times - Monday, November 22, 2010

A key Russian opposition leader was assaulted by pro-government hooligans last week when he arrived in Moscow after speaking out in Washington against Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s growing grip on power.

Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, said in an interview that those who assaulted him were linked to a pro-Putin youth group known as the Nashi. In a telephone interview, he said the assailants sneaked up on him at the airport after he retrieved his luggage and cleared customs and threw a fishing net onto him and proceeded to take photos. “I guess I am a big fish,” he told The Washington Times.

Days before the assault on Mr. Nemtsov, he gave an interview to The Times urging the United States to impose a travel ban on Vladislav Surkov, a Putin loyalist who co-founded the Nashi.

Mr. Surkov is the Russian government representative on a U.S.-Russia commission on civil society.

Mr. Nemtsov also testified last week before the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, to make his case for travel bans and sanctions on corrupt Russian officials.

“I was disturbed to learn that he was attacked today at a Moscow airport upon his return to Russia after suggesting at the event that top Kremlin advisers, including Vladislav Surkov, be blacklisted from the United States,” Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat and chairman of the Helsinki Commission, said this week.

“In the attack on Mr. Nemtsov, occurring at a major international airport, it would seem there would be ample evidence and eyewitnesses to facilitate a thorough investigation,” Mr. Cardin said.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow issued a formal demarche, or diplomatic protest, regarding the incident. The State Department has formally protested other instances when Mr. Nemtsov has been arrested.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said in an interview that the harassment of Mr. Nemtsov was “part of a continuation of the disappearance of democracy and rights of the individual in Russia, particularly if you were part of previous administrations and speak out in opposition to the present repression of the press and people who are in opposition to the Putin administration.”

In his interview with The Times, Mr. Nemtsov said Mr. Obama is wrong to engage Mr. Surkov through the commission on civil society.

But the White House has said that it is important to engage someone close to Mr. Putin’s inner circle on democracy and civil rights issues.

“I think his criticisms are legitimate,” a senior White House official said. “There are other political people in Russia, who have said to us categorically, ‘Do not dissolve this. If you engage with this guy, it gives us a direct shot at the guy who matters.’”

This official said that “we think it’s better to engage than not to engage.”

White House Russia specialist Michael McFaul has quietly pressed his counterparts in Russia to end the harassment of Mr. Nemtsov’s solidarity movement, which held a protest Oct. 31 on Moscow’s Triumphal Square that ended with a clash with police.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently vetoed proposed legislation making these demonstrations illegal.

The Obama administration has sought to engage Mr. Medvedev while marginalizing the former president and current prime minister, Mr. Putin. But some critics say the White House approach is too soft on democracy and human rights in Russia.

“We all know one of the major reasons why the Berlin Wall came down in the first place is because of the steadfastness of support for those standing up for risks for freedom behind the Iron Curtain,” Mr. McCain said. “Obviously, this administration is far more interested in pushing the quote reset button.”

• Eli Lake can be reached at elake@washingtontimes.com.

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