MOSCOW — Russian lawmakers on Friday debated whether to expel a former KGB officer turned opposition lawmaker who has angered the Kremlin with his scathing criticism and his involvement in street protests against President Vladimir Putin.
Gennady Gudkov's expected unseating paves the way for similar action against other opposition lawmakers, sending a clear message to parliament members that they must serve at the pleasure of the Kremlin.
If Gudkov loses his seat in the lower house as expected, he would no longer be protected by immunity from prosecution and his supporters fear he could face arrest.
Gudkov, like Putin a former KGB officer, is not your typical Russian protester. This 56-year-old stout mustachioed man cut a bizarre figure among young activists as he chanted "Putin, Resign!" from the stage at opposition rallies last winter.
That was on weekends. During the week, he donned expensive suits and attended close-door meetings at the Russian parliament. He was deputy chairman of the parliament's security committee and enjoyed good relations with many senior officials in Russian police security agencies.
For most of the past 10 years, the State Duma, the lower house, has obediently rubber-stamped all Kremlin bills. Critics were tolerated because a solid pro-Kremlin majority could ensure the safe passage of any legislation.
Gudkov, who worked in the KGB from 1981 to 1992 and then continued his career in its main successor agency, has been a lawmaker since 2001. He initially was a member of United Russia, the dominant Kremlin party, before moving in 2007 to Fair Russia, another Kremlin-created party that has leaned more toward the opposition in recent years.
The onslaught against Gudkov and other opposition leaders began after a May 6 rally, which ended in clashes between protesters and police. The protest was on the eve of Putin's inauguration and the start of his third term as president.
An inspection of a private security firm that Gudkov set up when he left the KGB, one of the largest in Russia, turned up so many purported irregularities that it had its license revoked, essentially shutting it down.
Then investigators and prosecutors sent petitions to parliament insisting they had evidence that Gudkov was running a separate business, a market for construction materials, in violation of Duma regulations, and thus should be stripped of his seat.
Gudkov and his son, Dmitry, also a parliament member, rejected the charges and struck back by unveiling documents showing property and businesses owned by United Russia members, raising the question of why pro-Kremlin deputies face no such scrutiny.
Communist deputy Vladimir Pozdnyakov said he sees the likely expulsion of Gudkov as putting pressure on all lawmakers. "We have no guarantee now that any other deputy will not end up in this meat grinder," he said.
Gudkov said he was certain his fellow parliament members would vote to expel him. "They're going to vote for any decision, even if it concerns them, even if it is aimed against them," he said.