Lawmaker Gennady Gudkov delivers his last speech in the assembly hall before… (Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles…)
MOSCOW — A prominent opposition activist was stripped of his seat in the lower house of the Russian parliament Friday, a move that heightens concern the Kremlin will continue its aggressive crackdown on political dissent.
Gennady Gudkov, 52, a protest movement leader and member of the opposition Just Russia party, was expelled by a 294-151 vote of the State Duma, controlled by President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party. Gudkov, once an ally of Putin, called the action political vengeance by the Kremlin.
"You are trying by repressions to shut up the mouths of the opposition and to stifle the critics," Gudkov, a former KGB officer and later a successful businessman, told Duma members before the vote. "What are you doing to the country? Where are you leading the Russian people?"
The vote came on the eve of an opposition mass demonstration, the first large-scale anti-Putin protest in downtown Moscow after a long summer break. Gudkov said the Kremlin was specifically pushing for his expulsion before the march as it was planning to crack down on protesters and arrest their leaders, including Gudkov, a move that would have been prohibited by his lawmaker status.
Sergei Mironov, a former Putin ally and now the leader of Just Russia in the lower house, called the vote "a shameful page in the State Duma's history."
Since Putin's first term as president more than a decade ago, several lawmakers have been stripped of their parliamentary immunity. Gudkov, however, became the first Russian legislator to lose his job for allegedly running a business while in parliament, in violation of rules. Prosecutors who appeared before the Duma on Friday displayed a photocopy of a document from Gudkov's former company that allegedly contained his signature. Gudkov called it a fake.
The vote came less than a month after a special commission was formed to investigate charges against Gudkov. He and his supporters in parliament asked that the vote be postponed or, if not, held by secret ballot. They warned that his ouster and similar actions would ultimately lead Russia into a civil confrontation.
Raisa Karmazina, a pro-government lawmaker from the Krasnoyarsk region, said Gudkov should have sorted out his business ties in time and only then "talk about a political reprisal." Karmazina said she expected other legislators to face similar problems.
"People, our voters, are paying us to do our jobs on their behalf and we must stay flawlessly honest in what we do," Karmazina said in an interview. "People should be satisfied seeing how we don't hesitate to purge our ranks, and this is only the beginning."
The vote came a day after the European Parliament lashed out at Russia "for less and less dialogue and openness on the side of the authorities and rather more intolerance of any expression of dissenting views."
Among the examples cited were new legislative curbs on the rights of opposition and human rights groups, curtailed Internet freedoms and the harsh sentencing of members of the feminist punk rock band Pussy Riot.
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected such charges. "The analysis doesn't correspond to reality," he told state news agency RIA Novosti.
Andrei Kortunov, president of the New Eurasia Foundation, a Moscow-based think tank, said in an interview that "this vote is just another step by the Kremlin to increase the polarization of the political forces in the Russian society." But such steps pose risks, he said. "When represented in parliament, the opposition to some extent still remained integrated in the country's political structure, but pushed completely out into the street it poses more and more danger for the authorities."
Gudkov said the vote, coming right after the European lawmakers' statement, made the Russian parliament a laughingstock.
"If you think that you are depriving me of my mandate, you are depriving thousands of my voters and millions of my supporters of their representative in an organ of power," he said. "I feel ashamed … as the country has to see you, smart people, turned into obedient puppets, obliged under control to vote for expelling a person for political reasons."