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The Blunt Weapon of Russian Law is Turned Against One of its Makers

Today, the Russian parliament voted 291 to 150 to strip one Gennady Gudkov of his seat. Gudkov, a former KGB man and businessman, has served in the Duma, the Russian parliament, for eleven years, most of them in the leftist Just Russia party. (The biography on his website notes, oddly, that he was “the first deputy elected in the third millennium.”) The ostensible cause was that Gudkov “combined a deputy’s role with an entrepreneur’s”—that is to say, he continued to run his private security business while voting on laws and otherwise involving himself in the strange workings of the Duma.

Some sort of punishment would undoubtedly have been deserved—if only Gudkov’s “combining” had been proven in court, or if every other parliamentarian weren’t doing the exact same thing. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the evergreen clown of the pseudo-nationalist LDPR faction, for example, has a vodka factory that makes Zhirinovsky Vodka. Another deputy, a young man from the United Russia faction, is the CEO of a company called “Konsalting Menedzhment Strategia.” According to a list compiled by Gudkov’s son Dmitry (also a deputy from the same party), his colleagues in the Duma own scores of business, hundreds of shares in companies, acres of posh real estate, and drive quite incredible cars. (One drives a Bentley, for example; the husband of another drives a Lamborghini Diablo. Indeed, the parking lot in front of the Duma building is a thicket of luxury vehicles, all this despite the parliamentarians’ officially low salaries.)

None of this is anything new. Russian bureaucrats are the country’s new elite. A study done by a Moscow real estate company found that most of the apartments on the “elite” market (apartments for $1.5 to 2 million) sell to bureaucrats. Their wives and children are usually the heads of large and lucrative businesses, and their automotive choices rarely jive with the incomes listed on their official declarations. Everyone in Russia knows that in Russia politics is almost explicitly about proximity to cash flows and the size of the bucket you get. This is why, when the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times recently reported on potential insider trading by which Putin ally Igor Shuvalov (then deputy prime minister) shuffled about a billion dollars to himself and his friends, no one so much as batted an eye, not even Shuvalov. A case that, in the West, would have churned up a media sensation and a drawn out legal battle here didn’t even ripple the water.

And this is the problem with the Gudkov case. Yes, Gudkov had a nice business—I would know: I’ve been to the well-appointed 18th century mansion that serves as its central office—but the fact that his business was first shut down (the Interior Ministry revoked its license that had allowed it to operate) and that he was shorn of his status clearly has nothing to do with the business. It has everything to do with the fact that Gudkov, a good old boy, went over to the wrong side: When mass political protests began after December’s disputed parliamentary elections, Gudkov became a very visible and very vocal leader of the opposition, both in parliament and on the streets. The issue is not that he is a businessman, but that he is a traitor. This is why, when Gudkov finished his farewell speech to his colleagues shortly before the vote, one United Russia deputy shouted “Judas!” (His fellow traitor, television celebrity and daughter of Putin’s mentor Ksenia Sobchak, was subjected to a humiliating nine-hour search of her home in June after joining the opposition. The investigators took nearly $2 million from her safe—and if she ever sees the money again, I will quit this profession.)

When I asked high-ranking United Russia deputy Andrey Isaev about the Gudkov case, he told me it was done with the Duma’s prestige in mind. “I think it was absolutely the right decision and if we hadn’t made it, millions of citizens would have decided that being in the Duma is a lucky break,” Isaev told me. “They’ll think that deputies can do whatever, violate whatever laws. Today’s decision showed that that’s not the case.”

Actually, Duma deputies enjoy legal immunity—the criminal investigation against Gudkov that the government’s Investigative Committee is now considering would never have been possible had he not been forced to relinquish his seat in parliament. But that’s not even the point. The point is that, if the Duma has little legitimacy after the widely and loudly falsified December parliamentary elections and the mass protests it sparked, it has even less legitimacy now. (After the vote, Russian-language Twitter buzzed with the anger of those who had voted for Gudkov and his party and December, and now felt cheated and silenced.) The case becomes yet another reason for Russians to come to the very reasonable conclusion that the law and the Russian judicial system are its enemies. As Alexander Kliment of the Eurasia Group once wisely pointed out to me, the law in Russia does not exist as a neutral framework of guarantees and protections designed to level the playing field. In Russia, the law doesn’t exist until it is needed to take out an opponent, or a traitor. In Russia, the law is a weapon.

Gudkov and anyone watching the fast unraveling of his career—first the business, then the Duma seat—knew that once the system aims itself at you, there is no chance you’ll escape whole. The outcome of this case was obvious months ago, when government inquiries into Gudkov’s business first appeared this summer. Perhaps this is why Gudkov’s speech in parliament focused on an unspecified future in which he could claim vindication—and why he answered the heckle “Judas!” with a full-throated “Go fuck yourself!”