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Published in Stream:
Russia Update: April 6, 2015
Press by
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russian Parliament to Strip Ilya Ponomarev of His Immunity; Only MP to Vote Against Crimea Annexation
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Tomorrow, April 7, the State Duma or lower house of parliament will review the issue of stripping deputy Ilya Ponomarev of his immunity, reports.

Ponomarev, a former member of the Just Russia party who remained in its Duma faction was the only member of the Russian parliament to vote against the annexation of the Crimea in March 2014. Since then, he has experienced enormous vilification in the state media and hate campaigns in social media, but has continued to speak out, notably pointing the finger at the Kremlin over the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

Today on Moscow's central thoroughfare, Tverskaya Boulevard, a large poster of Ponomarev has been hung out from a building saying he received $700,000 for lectures.

Translation: A poster has been hung on Tverskaya about Ilya Ponomarev (the photo was made right now).

Twitter is filled with hate posts from bots like this one:

Translation: If those who disagree are not shy about taking $700,000 for themselves from the budget for "lectures," then I'm the first to vote for execution.

The figure stems from charges first made in a complaint by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the ill-named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and faction head in the Duma, who claimed that Aleksei Beltyukov, director of the Skolkovo Foundation, a high-tech innovation fund, gave Ponomarev $750,000 in fees for lectures and seminars for investors.

The Duma rules committee reviewed today April 6 the notice from the Prosecutor General calling for removal of immunity. The committee voted to place the issue before the Duma. Thus there will be a vote at the plenary meeting tomorrow, April 7 where a majority are likely to vote in favor of stripping Ponomarev of his immunity, a source in the ruling United Russia party told RBC.

Given that United Russia has 238 votes, and only 226 are required to support the resolution in favor, it seems likely to go through.

All the other factions have indicated they are prepared to vote in favor of removal of Ponomarev's immunity. Frants Klintsevich, deputy chairman of the United Russia faction in the Duma told RBC:

"People who betray their country and live on the money of unknown sponsors should be released from their immunity. I will do everything so that the faction supports the stripping of his immunity and I am certain that colleagues will agree with me."

Igor Lebedev, vice speaker of the Duma from the LDPR confirmed his party's support as well. Even Ponomarev's fellow faction members will not support him. Mikhail Yemelyanov, deputy leader of Just Russia's faction in the Duma said, "We discussed his political actions and de facto expelled him from the faction."

Ponomarev has repeatedly said that he planned to return to Russia to continue his political activity and did not intend to seek political asylum in the West. The loss of immunity and almost certain arrest if he returns to Russia could change that position.

Like other fraud cases concocted in Russia, the charges stem not from claims of the foundation itself, or Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Kremlin advisor Vladislav Surkov who were its patrons. Rather, it comes long after the fact when authorities are trying to find some angle to create a case against a disliked political figure.

RBC reports that Ponomarev is suspected as an accomplice in the charges that Skolkovo director Aleksei Beltyukov spent 22.05 million rubles ($390,782) in a misuse of his position. Beltyukov was charged in April 2013 under Art. 160, part. 4 and Art. 33, part. 5 of the Russian Criminal Code.

Investigators said that on November 30, 2010, Skolkovo signed an agreement with Ponomarev for $750,000 (i.e. for the equivalent in rubles at that time at the Bank of Russia). He was to receive these funds in four installments after providing a report of the time and place of lectures to promote Russian innovation.

In a letter to Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin, Prosecutor General Yury Chaika said that in this fashion, conditions were created for "unlawful and uncompensated alienation of the funds entrusted to Beltyukov with assistance by Ponomarev."

Chaika said that three falsified statements regarding work performed were signed by Beltyukov and Ponomarev. The sum of 8.4 million rubles was transferred to Ponomarev in the first two installments and he was also given an advance of 4.6 million rubles for a total of 13 million rubles ($230,451). Subsequently, in a court proceeding, Gagarin Court issued a judgement against Ponomarev for only 2.7 million rubles ($47,877).

Ponomarev was one of the leaders of the anti-Putin demonstrations of the winter of 2011-2012, known as the "white ribbon protests". He left the Just Russia party in March 2013 when the party leadership changed the line from criticism of Putin to loyalty and expelled two outspoken deputies, Gennady and Dmitry Gudkov, father and son.

Ponomarev has maintained that in the world of high technology in the West, fees for lectures and seminars are high because of the investments at stake. Indeed, in the US tech stars like Tim O'Reilly command $25,000-$40,000 per lecture.

In an interview with Kommersant in 2013, he said (translated by The Interpreter):

Again: the word “lecture” that is being used in this case is not a lecture as in a university, where a professor comes out and reads something to students about modern problems in physics. In my case, this is a special meeting, public presentations mainly in front of a business audience  which essentially describe how a profit can be made in Russia with the help of the Skolkovo project, what should be done, what shouldn’t be done, what opportunities there are.  That LifeNews was even there, and plucked a quote out of my speech, where I said that usually investors say, who have been urged to come to Russia, that they don’t invest in a single project. I explained why that isn’t so, because in this project, you can make money.

These speeches have a completely concrete, pragmatic interest for those who come to them because they help them either save money or make money. Such things cost a fair amount all over the world. I brought a print-out to the Investigative Committee today — I just went on Google, and typed “value of public lectures”. The first line was a complete price list, and I fall into the category of $10,000-$50,000. In any country of the world, they would charge that much for that sort of work.

Ponomarev says that the work was completed and records filed and when he was interrogated as a witness in 2013.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick