Following the heavily manipulated elections in 2003, in which pro-democracy parties lost nearly all of their seats, Russia’s Parliament, already largely loyal to the Kremlin since 2000, finally ceased to be an independent body. Then Speaker Boris Gryzlov famously declared it “not a place for discussions.” Unanimity was cemented with the removal of the last independent deputies in 2007: not only dissenting legislative initiatives, but even dissenting voices were no longer tolerated. In the last (and perhaps the most fraudulent) elections in December 2011, genuine opponents of Vladimir Putin were not even allowed on the ballot—which explains why the nominally “opposition” parties in the current Duma are backing key Kremlin initiatives (such as the recent law directed against NGOs).
Yet, as tens of thousands of people went to the streets to protest election fraud in what became Russia’s largest pro-democracy rallies in two decades, a handful of Duma members responded to the changed public mood and openly broke with the Kremlin. Gennady Gudkov, Dmitri Gudkov (his son), and Ilya Ponomarev—all of them from the otherwise docile A Just Russia party—regularly participate in street rallies, sport white ribbons (the symbol of the protest movement) at Duma sessions, and use the parliamentary rostrum to call members of Putin’s United Russia party by their popular nickname: “crooks and thieves.”
Last month, rebel deputies staged Russia’s first-ever parliamentary filibuster, tabling hundreds of (intentionally absurd) amendments to the infamous law on public rallies, and forcing the chamber to debate it for eleven straight hours. “Of course people such as Ilya Ponomarev and the Gudkovs, who bring a dissonance to the Duma … are considered a foreign element,” says Lilia Shevtsova, a leading political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “After the Duma, on the Kremlin’s instructions, annulled constitutional protections for the freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, it would be strange for the Duma to tolerate maverick deputies [in its own ranks].”
It seems they will not be tolerated much longer. When the lower house returns from its summer vacation in September, one of the first topics on the agenda will be a bill which would allow the Duma to expel any member for “ethics violations” without even a formal court order. The Kremlin, not surprisingly, is backing the idea. Among the proposed reasons for expulsion are “inappropriate statements which discredit Parliament or are directed against the state.” It is not difficult to guess which legislators will be the first to lose their seats.
Not that it matters too much. Few analysts believe that the current Duma, widely viewed as illegitimate and unrepresentative, will serve out its full term until 2016. If, as recently predicted by the pro-Kremlin Center for Strategic Research, rising public discontent forces the regime to hold early elections, they will likely result in a Parliament that will be not just a place for discussions, but—for the first time in more than a decade—a place for legislating.