MOSCOW -- The expulsion of firebrand opposition lawmaker Gennady Gudkov from the State Duma was supposed to set an example for other potential troublemakers. But instead, it appears to have set a precedent that could spell trouble for the ruling United Russia party.
Gudkov, a member of the center-left A Just Russia, was kicked out of the lower house on September 14 for unlawful entrepreneurship while serving as a lawmaker. United Russia deputies alleged that Gudkov violated the law by participating in the management of a building materials retailer.
Gudkov's allies say he is being targeted for his opposition to President Vladimir Putin and pointed out that numerous members of United Russia are also engaged in commercial activity and should be investigated as well. And in an effort to counter allegations that the Gudkov case was politically motivated, the Kremlin appears prepared to do so.
The result, analysts say, could be chaos.
"Now, the highest authorities cannot guarantee the immunity of the political class -- not in elections and not in situations like this when there are going to be investigations," says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a Moscow-based sociologist and expert on the Russian elite. "Now relations between the Kremlin and the whole political class across the territory of the Russian Federation are going to change. It's a difficult process and a long one. It changes the paradigm of power."
Up to now, the law has been selectively applied under that paradigm. Allies of the Kremlin have traditionally been given a wide latitude to bend -- if not break -- the law while those who crossed the authorities were dealt with harshly. But in today's hyper-charged political environment, Kryshtanovskaya believes "the social contract among the authorities" appears to be changing:
"It's possible that there will be tectonic shifts within the power structures," she says. "The authorities themselves are being obliged to change the rules of the game not only for the opposition, but for themselves and people who are loyal to the authorities."
The Duma's commission on income and property is expected to look into allegations that six United Russia lawmakers -- Vladimir Pekhtin, Aleksei Knyshev, Yelena Nikolayeva, Grigory Anikeyev, Sergei Yesyakov, and Ilya Kostunov -- have been engaged in unlawful commercial activity.
The pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia" reported on September 18 that Knyshev could be the first to go. Gudkov's son Dmitry, also a deputy from A Just Russia, has accused him of having an undeclared company in Slovakia and an apartment in Miami.
Some commentators in the Russian media have speculated that if the current trend continues it could lead to the Duma being dissolved and new elections called.
Such an outcome would mark a significant victory for the opposition, which has been calling for just that since United Russia secured a bare majority in disputed elections last December.
Kremlin-friendly political analyst Sergei Markov, himself a former United Russia lawmaker, says such an outcome is highly unlikely. But Markov adds that "the Gudkov precedent" is setting off what Russians call a "kompromat war," which refers to a rash of smear campaigns in which political opponents have been publicly airing corruption allegations in the media. It's a development that is making United Russia deputies very nervous.
"[They view it] extremely negatively because two thirds of them are businessmen," Markov says. "They feel threatened by this. They feel that the ensuing 'kompromat war' is not correct. They feel it is difficult. There could be accidental victims of this 'kompromat war' -- people who don't have anything to do with business."
Gudkov, a 56-year-old former KGB colonel was once a Kremlin loyalist. He moved into the opposition last year and has been a fixture at opposition demonstrations ever since.