MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's parliament on Friday expelled a lawmaker who turned against President Vladimir Putin, paving the way for similar action against others who have joined the opposition movement in a clear sign that the Kremlin is intensifying its crackdown on political dissent.
The 293-150 vote to expel Gennady Gudkov from the State Duma also removes his immunity from prosecution, and his supporters fear he could face arrest. Gudkov, a KGB veteran like Putin who once represented the main Kremlin party in parliament, helped stage a series of street protests against Putin's rule last winter.
Gudkov called the vote "political revenge and extrajudicial repression," and described the accusations — that he was involved in a business in violation of parliament rules — as a sham.
The vote to expel Gudkov came a day before the first major opposition rally after a summer break, a Kremlin signal to the opposition that it will take an increasingly tough line against dissent. Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin political consultant, said it moved against Gudkov out of fear that his example might encourage other members of the ruling elite to join the opposition.
Gudkov's behavior was like "a specter of the split in the elite that the Kremlin is so afraid of," Pavlovsky said. "It scared them a lot."
For most of the past decade, the State Duma — the lower house of parliament — 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, 56, was long part of that majority. He worked at the KGB from 1981-92, then continued his career in its main successor agency before becoming a lawmaker in 2001. He initially joined United Russia, the dominant Kremlin party, before moving in 2007 to Fair Russia, another Kremlin-created party that in recent years has begun to lean more toward the opposition.
Gudkov was deputy chairman of the Duma's security committee and enjoyed good relations with many senior officials in Russian police security agencies.
But he has become increasingly critical of Kremlin policies in recent years, denouncing the government's inefficiency and official corruption.
A decisive moment came last fall when he surprisingly emerged at a giant opposition rally. The stout, mustached man cut a striking figure among young activists as he chanted "Putin, resign!" from the stage.
The backlash began after a May 6 rally on the eve of Putin's inauguration for his third term as president. The protest ended in clashes between protesters and police.
Authorities soon launched an inspection of a private security firm that Gudkov had set up when he left the security agency and revoked its license, citing purported irregularities. Then investigators and prosecutors sent petitions to parliament claiming that Gudkov was running a separate business — a street market for construction materials — in violation of Duma regulations, and thus should be stripped of his seat.
"For many years, Gudkov has been integrated in Putin's system of government and Putin's system of business," political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky said on Ekho Moskvy radio. "Putin does not forgive treachery."
Gudkov and his son Dmitry — also a parliament member — rejected the charges and struck back by releasing documents showing property and businesses owned by United Russia members, suggesting the rules were being implemented selectively. Gudkov said before the vote that there was no legal basis for removing him from parliament.
"If the parliament votes for that, it will mean that Russia has no parliament," he said.
The vote sent a chill among other lawmakers. Communist deputy Vladimir Pozdnyakov said before the vote that an expulsion would put pressure on all lawmakers: "We have no guarantee now that any other deputy will not end up in this meat grinder."
Gudkov said it also sends a troubling message about the direction of the Russian government.
"They're expelling me from the Duma because they're afraid of the truth, afraid of criticism and my stance," he said. "We have come very close to the brink that separates an authoritarian regime from a dictatorship."
Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report.