In a nearly unprecedented action, the pro-Kremlin majority in Russia's State Duma voted to strip dissident lawmaker Gennady Gudkov of his parliamentary mandate Friday. The move – just a day before thousands of Russians are expected to return to the streets of Moscow to protest against Vladimir Putin's increasingly authoritarian rule – is seen by many as part of a wider crackdown to warn of the consequences for participating in the nearly 10-month-old opposition movement.
Mr. Gudkov is a former KGB colonel who broke with Mr. Putin's United Russia party five years ago to join the center-left Just Russia party, and recently became a strong supporter of the anti-Putin protest movement. He was accused by the Duma majority of engaging in commercial activities – which is illegal for Duma members while in office – and his case was rushed through this week, culminating in a 291-150 vote to expel him in the 450-seat lower house of parliament Friday. He denies the allegations, and warns that he may be just the first of several opposition-minded deputies slated to face the revenge of the pro-Putin majority.
"I am a shareholder, but not an active businessman, and there are no legal restrictions on a deputy having this status," Gudkov says. "What is happening to me now is an extrajudicial reprisal. Lawyers say the allegations against me have 'no legal significance.' In other words, they are using this as a pretext to force me out for political reasons."
In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor last June, Gudkov described an escalating campaign aimed at wrecking his reputation and destroying his family's business, and said he'd been told by high Kremlin officials that his problems would all "go away" if he broke off relations with the opposition movement. He said would remain with the protesters, mainly because he felt they needed moderate voices among them to discourage reckless radicalism.
Following Friday's vote, he told the Duma that "I will leave, but will return to help build a new Russia that our children and grandchildren can be proud of.... And this will be soon, very soon."
Many observers say Gudkov's expulsion was almost certainly ordered by Putin, and that it is a sign that the Kremlin may have given up on the soft-authoritarian system of "managed democracy" and is preparing to use more direct repressive means to keep people in line.
"Putin divides all people into supporters and traitors," says Andrei Piontkovsky, an expert at the official Institute of System Analysis and a long time Putin opponent. "Gudkov for him is a double traitor. He left the KGB, and then he left United Russia. What has happened to Gudkov is a clear signal for the entire elite, a warning that any lack of loyalty will be severely punished."
Gudkov's son, Dmitry, is also a Duma deputy who has taken an active role in the protest movement. So has Ilya Ponomaryov, another Just Russia deputy, who says he fears they may be next in line for expulsion.
Mr. Ponomaryov says the Kremlin's actions since Putin returned to power for a third presidential term last May have polarized Russian society and split the elite.
Among these are a raft of draconian new legislation passed by the Duma's United Russia majority, including tough penalties for anyone engaging in non-permitted protests, severe restrictions on politically-active non-governmental organizations if they receive any foreign funding, and a potentially sweeping Internet law that would give authorities the power – and infrastructure – to summarily shut down any website.
The summer trial and harsh two-year prison sentence handed down to the three young women of Pussy Riot, whose crime was to perform a "blasphemous" song in an empty church, has also sharply moved the bar on what constitutes an imprisonable offense in Russia.
"Without openly declaring dictatorship, this is the way the authorities are using to create an appearance of being in control," says Ponomaryov.
"But all the political mechanisms for governing with any semblance of popular consent have been destroyed. There is no longer any legitimate way to effect changes. The Kremlin's behavior is splitting the elite, and this is creating a real threat to stability," he adds.
Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Putin adviser and image-maker, says the system is rapidly deteriorating into "rule by No. 1."
"I see a transition toward extraordinary measures, both in legislation and style of leadership," Mr. Pavlovsky says. "Neither a political nor an economic strategy for the country has been formulated [since Putin came back into office]. The government is completely passive and everyone is afraid to make a move without Putin's say-so."
The only other deputy ever to be expelled from the Duma was Sergei Mavrodi, mastermind of a 1990s pyramid scheme that defrauded millions of Russians. He was elected to the Duma in 1994 on promises that he would use his parliamentary status to legislate restitution for his victims, but the Duma annulled his immunity the next year.
There are no legal charges of any kind outstanding against Gudkov, though his supporters fear some will materialize now that he's been ejected from the Duma.
"Gudkov's case has crossed the line that separated Putin from [Belarussian dictator Alexander] Lukashenko," says Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and opposition leader. "It means that a person who was elected with the support of millions of Russians has been stripped of his mandate by a mere headcount in the Duma."
Mr. Nemtsov says that Gudkov has agreed to take part in Saturday's planned opposition rally in downtown Moscow, where he will likely receive a hero's welcome.
"For us, it means that a person from the system has joined our ranks. We expect many more."