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A senior functionary of the ruling United Russia party, member of several State Dumas, Vladimir Pekhtin, has declared that he is quitting his seat in the lower house of parliament. This move is a result of an investigative campaign held by the Opposition. Experts believe that the authorities have agreed to sacrifice a senior figure in the ruling party to cater to the current sentiment in society.
Pekhtin has acknowledged that he has taken a no easy decision in connection with the just-published claims he allegedly owns major undeclared properties in the United States.
“I will not say a word about how I am feeling about this. I am innocent in the eyes of the law. I have never violated anything. Nor shall I violate anything in the future,” the legislator said. “But there are some controversial documents, published in the world web, and there is certain legal confusion. They will take a great deal of time to explain. Possibly, months. Things will have to be sorted out with foreign lawyers.”
Pekhtin said he was laying down his mandate in order to prevent “a shadow of groundless charges from falling on the party.”
He promised he would prove that he is innocent. “We shall keep fighting,” Pekhtin promised.
The legislators welcomed his decision by prolonged applause.
“Thank you for your honest and responsible decision,” State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin told Pekhtin.
Earlier, oppositional activist Alexei Navalny published in his blog some information to the effect Pekhtin owned undeclared property.
According to Navalny, Pekhtin, apart from some undeclared plots of land in Russia, also has assets outside the country. As Navalny has said, “On November 1, 2007 Alexey Pekhtin (Vladimir Pekhtin’s son) purchased an apartment in the elite residential compound Flamingo South Beach (Florida) for 540,000 dollars.”
“On August 4 Pekhtin formalized his ownership of half of that luxurious apartment in Miami,” Navalny says further. However, according to the blogger, the legislator did not mention that property in any of his declarations.
Navalny even invented a special term - “pekhting” – to dub the ongoing discussion of the United Russia functionary’s property. The witty word proved amazingly to the point. Pekhtin has dismissed the charges against him all the way, although at first he offered some very clumsy explanations, such as he had “practically no” real state in the United States.
On February 13 Pekhtin declared he was stepping down as the head of the State Duma’s committee for ethics until the probe was over. Now he has laid down his mandate.
Pekhtin is a very noticeable figure in United Russia. Starting from 1997 he chaired the Magadan Regional Duma and held a seat on the Federation Council (upper house of parliament). In 1999 he was elected a member of Russia’s third Duma, affiliated with the Unity faction. In 2001, though, he was involved in a criminal case opened over violations related to the issue of Kolymaenergo power utility shares. The case was later closed.
Pekhtin has been elected to the State Duma several times. He held the positions of deputy speaker and first deputy leader of the United Russia faction. His ascent up the career ladder was very fast. He was a member of the bureau of the United Russia’s supreme council, a member of the UR general council’s presidium and deputy secretary of the party’s general council.
The campaign for stripping legislators of their mandates and immunity in connection with charges brought against them over activities incompatible with their status began last autumn. The oppositional legislator from the A Just Russia party, Gennady Gudkov, fell the first victim. He was accused of illegal business activities and his mandate was taken away without a court verdict.
The oppositional legislators, in the first place, Gudkov’s son Dmitry, responded by publishing in the Internet a good portion of compromising evidence against United Russia members. All information was borrowed from open sources.
The defamation war gained momentum. United Russia legislator Alexey Knyshov was accused of illegal business activity. He handed in his mandate in order to not force his fellow party members to vote against him.
Last January the Prosecutor-General’s Office asked the State Duma to lift immunity from A Just Russia member Oleg Mikheyev and Communist Konstantin Shirshov. Mikheyev was accused of seizing the 500 million dollars worth of real estate belonging to the Volgograd Engine Manufacturing Plant and of attempted theft of 2.1 billion rubles from a bank. Shirshov was charged with an attempt to sell a seat in parliament for 7.5 million euros. Both lost their immunity in February.
Lastly, there has come the high-profile scandal over Pekthin’s property overseas. Many experts on Tuesday were saying that such a high-placed figure in the United Russia party would not be sacrificed by any means, largely because the evidence against him was published by opposition activist Alexey Navalny, so much hated by the authorities. However, the sacrificial offering has been made. To woo the public opinion, experts say.
They suggest considering the latest developments in the context of the several-months-long wide anti-corruption campaign orchestrated from the very top. Several senior civil servants have already fallen victim. Anatoly Serdyukov, the former defense minister is one.
“The authorities feel what the public sentiment is like and they are perfectly aware the image of the ruling party must be improved as soon as possible, because the “cheaters- and-thieves” nickname Navalny coined a while ago is still on everybody’s tongue,” political scientist Valery Khomyakov has told Itar-Tass. “The documents are available on the Internet, with all the rubberstamps and signatures, and it is hard to prove they are forgeries.”
The president of the National Strategy Institute, Mikhail Remizov, believes that the current process is “a manifestation of some political will and political campaign for purging the authorities.”
“The authorities’ ability to clean themselves is perceived by society as a factor for trust. On the other hand, it sounds an important message to the political class and to the establishment they should amend the rules of the game. It is also a clear message Russia’s ruling class should follow far stricter rules of responsibility and discipline,” Remizov said.
The Russian political system is transforming itself into a state where even people who are absolutely loyal to the establishment, who are part and parcel of that establishment, cannot feel themselves safe, says the electronic newspaper Gazeta.ru.
The daily Moskovsky Komsomolets quotes blogger Doct-z, who helped Navalny unearth the evidence of Pekhtin’s properties, as saying he is certain that if at least 100,000 net surfers join in this work, they will have a chance to overthrow the ruling regime.
“I believe that 100,000 activists seated in front of their PCs will be able to replace the regime faster than 100,000 activists waving banners on the streets… Firstly, this way of struggle is far safer. Secondly, it will not lead to any sanguinary consequences. And thirdly, it is really effective,” the blogger said about the likely effects of “pekhting.”
The very same blogger, who says he is a resident of Spain, has told the daily Vedomosti, he has information about another 3,500 representatives of the Russian authorities, including various officials, judges and law enforcers. All information is said to have been obtained from official sources.
MOSCOW, February 20