MOSCOW (Reuters) - As one of a handful of Russian members of parliament who have taken part in demonstrations against Vladimir Putin, Gennady Gudkov has become known to protesters as “Our man in the Duma”.
But it could be payback time for the former KGB officer who has been regarded a turncoat by the Kremlin since he started using his seat in the State Duma lower house as a pulpit to rail against the president’s ruling United Russia party.
Gudkov faces ejection from the legislature in a vote next week, and then the threat of jail, in what he says is a Kremlin vendetta against him and a broad crackdown on dissent.
He is accused of continuing business activities while a deputy, a crime that carries a two-year jail sentence, but says his only offence is to have challenged Putin and the Kremlin.
“The people in power are taking revenge for my opposition activity,” said Gudkov, who was first elected to the Duma in 2001 and is serving his fourth term as a deputy. “I am sure this is only the beginning.”
The portly, moustachioed 56-year-old, whose 32-year-old son Dmitry also has a seat in the Duma, is likely to be stripped of his place in a vote that is expected to be held on September 12 in one of the first sittings of the chamber’s autumn session.
United Russia holds 238 of the Duma’s 450 seats and is usually backed by nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR, so even though the 64 members of Gudkov’s Just Russia party may be joined by the chamber’s 92 Communists in opposing his ouster, they have little chance of success.
Ejecting Gudkov would deprive him of parliamentary immunity and enable the authorities to prosecute him over allegations of illegal business activity he and his son say are unfounded and part of a campaign of politically motivated harassment.
Opposition leaders have portrayed his treatment as part of a campaign to discredit them that also includes criminal charges that protest leader Alexei Navalny stole timber from a state firm, which could land him in prison for 10 years.
Gudkov says the Kremlin has adopted particularly tough tactics since Putin returned to the presidency in May to face the biggest protests since he first rose to power in 2000.
“It shows that Kremlin hardliners, who will not negotiate with protesters or conduct dialogue with society, have won out,” Gudkov said in an interview in his Duma office.
As recently as a year ago, Gudkov would have seemed an unlikely target for the Kremlin’s ire.
Like Putin, who is less than four years his senior, Gudkov served in the KGB in the Soviet era. He is a reserve colonel of the Russian FSB, the KGB successor agency Putin headed during his swift rise from obscurity to the Kremlin in the late 1990s.
For years Gudkov was little but a cog in Putin’s system, despite his moderate criticism of the Kremlin. A deputy chairman of the Duma security committee, he blended in as a member of Just Russia, a party which provided a veneer of plurality without actually opposing Putin.
He broke ranks last November. Taking the floor for a searing speech, Gudkov warned United Russia that voters would take to the streets if they felt it had rigged the December 4 parliamentary election to soften the blow from its fading public support.
The speech proved prescient. Tens of thousands of people packed a frigid Moscow embankment days after the election for one of Russia’s biggest protests since the early 1990s, angered by suspicions of fraud and dismayed by Putin’s plan to return to the Kremlin after four years as prime minister.
“When the protest movement started, I felt very acutely for the first time that the deputy corps is dividing into camps: those for the authorities and those against,” Gudkov said.
Last month, the federal Investigative Committee - the top investigative agency, which answers to Putin - said there was evidence Gudkov had broken the law by co-owning and managing a construction materials market and allegedly reaping earnings from a textile firm.
He has also been criticised over security firms controlled by members of his family, which he says are being driven out of business by state authorities, and has faced informal allegations of tax evasion and illicit dealings in Bulgaria.
Gudkov denies any wrongdoing. Allies including his son Dmitry have fought back, pointing to Duma members from United Russia they say have lucrative business interests that in some cases support lavish lifestyles.
Throughout the protests this year, during which he has been cheered by protesters chanting “Our man in the Duma”, Gudkov cast himself as a moderate with whom the Kremlin should engage as a bridge to disaffected Russians.
Gudkov says resistance to compromise could backfire on Putin and push him from the presidency before his six-year term ends. This is an opinion which he says he “would never have had, much less risked voicing” a year ago.
He said Putin, who has not ruled out seeking another term in 2018, has lost touch with what Russians want and “does not understand the risks” of resistance to reform.
“If he stays this course, I don’t think Putin has a mandate for the next six years because all the current calm in Russia today is based on two factors: society’s passiveness, which is fading very fast, and huge profits from oil and gas,” he said.
“These are very shaky criteria for the stability of the political system. Very shaky.”
Since December, Gudkov and his son have harangued United Russia in the Duma, where its once formidable majority was cut to nine seats in the December election, and fuelled anti-Putin sentiment in the streets and the Internet.
“He gives me experience, and I make him modern and young,” said Dmitry Gudkov, who wears skinny ties and jeans and shows an activist’s enthusiasm for the protest movement.
He gave his father an iPhone for his birthday last year and has pushed him to use Twitter and other social media.
In June, the younger Gudkov led the Just Russia faction in the first filibuster since Putin came to power, coolly sipping coffee as he held red-eyed antagonists hostage past midnight.
The tactic, known as an “Italian strike” in Russia, only delayed passage of a law toughening rules governing protests by a few hours. But it shook a legislature whose rubber-stamp role under Putin’s rule was once encapsulated by the speaker’s remark that the Duma was “no place for discussions”.
During the wave of winter protests, Putin and then-President Dmitry Medvedev promised reforms to broaden democracy.
But they have watered down or backtracked on most of the plans and, alongside police tactics such as apartment searches, summonses and criminal probes, Putin has signed a series of laws critics say are aimed at silencing dissent in his new term.
The case against Gudkov deepened this summer shortly before a Moscow court sentenced three women from punk band Pussy Riot to tow years in jail for singing an anti-Putin “punk prayer” in Moscow’s main Russian Orthodox church.
“Once you decide to neutralize or lock up political opponents, there is no way to stop,” said Maria Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Gudkov’s senior status in he Duma and his history as an insider have made his public opposition a betrayal in the Kremlin’s eyes, said Lipman.
Supporters of Gudkov say the authorities are violating the law in their haste to make him first deputy voted out of the Duma by his peers since the founder of MMM, a pyramid scheme that cost many Russians their life savings, was ejected in 1995.
Backers say the state can ask the Duma to strip a deputy of his parliamentary immunity from prosecution but has no authority to ask them to vote him out, as Gudkov said the Prosecutor General’s office did last week.
In Twitter posts this month, Gudkov said he had written to some 50 members of United Russia urging them “not to vote for an extrajudicial political reprisal”.
“It’s not about me, thousands will be repressed in this fashion. 1937 did not happen overnight,” he tweeted, referring to the height of Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s Great Terror.
Gudkov may hope United Russia members will worry that ejecting a deputy for alleged business activity could be a risky precedent. But his son said Putin’s allies are less vulnerable.
“There is a caste of untouchables,” he said. “Not only Putin and his circle but everyone who is part of this system - United Russia deputies and those of any party who play by the rules of the political casino the authorities have created.”
Editing by Steve Gutterman, Timothy Heritage and Philippa Fletcher