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Russia: Immunity For Deputies Becomes Election Issue

With three weeks to go until elections to Russia's State Duma, many candidates are saying they favor limits on deputies' immunity from prosecution. Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that in the populist fervor, little attention is being paid to the legal implications of the move.

Moscow, 26 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- More and more candidates for the Duma have found a way not only to look good in the eyes of the electorate, but also to improve the widespread perception that the Duma is a refuge for law breakers. With several dubious candidates trying to get elected to the lower house, blocs from across the political spectrum say they want to change Russia's generous immunity laws.

Under current law, anyone elected to the Duma is immune from prosecution for any crime, even those allegedly committed before the election. The law is intended to protect government members from having to defend themselves against spurious, politically motivated charges. Many Western countries have similar laws to guard against political pressure on lawmakers.

But critics say the lure of immunity from prosecution has drawn many criminals into the Duma race.

The logic of the new, populist wave of criticism of immunity is that if deputies were not protected, the Duma would be less corrupt. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov says immunity is a "moral shield for breaking the law." And former prime minister Sergey Kiriyenko's Union of Right Forces is campaigning for a referendum on the issue.

According to Russian law, parliamentary immunity can be lifted by a vote of the Duma after a request of the Prosecutor's Office wishing to indict a deputy of a crime unrelated to political activity. The Duma has lifted immunity only rarely, however, and a parliamentary seat is still seen as effective protection from prosecution.

Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Fund in Moscow, tells RFE/RL that politicians are oversimplifying the issue to appeal to voters.

"[It's] similar to the question of [reducing] privileges. It's a sure way to the heart of many [voters]. [The politicians] are showing pure populism. It is clear that for them, it would not be beneficial to explain to voters that immunity is very much needed and very useful in today's Russia. But another bad thing is that in each concrete case of even murder, the Duma [hardly] handed a deputy over to law-enforcement organs."

The Constitutional Court has ruled that parliamentary immunity does not protect members from prosecution for offenses unconnected with parliamentary activities. But Petrov says the Duma has not applied the law on immunity properly, refusing to allow prosecution even of deputies who were credibly accused of non-political crimes.

The first big scandal over immunity came in 1995, when Sergei Mavrodi, who had masterminded a financial pyramid scheme (MMM) that ruined thousands the year before, got himself elected. Although his immunity was lifted by a majority vote, the incident was the first of several to erode the house's reputation.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) added several scandals to the list. A few years ago, one of the party's members was about to be charged with double murder when he was shot in an apparent contract killing. Last year, another LDPR member in Saint Petersburg was shot. Some Duma deputies, including several former LDPR members, allege that Zhirinovsky sells spots on his party list to criminals. The LDPR's reputation is such that some suspect it of being a Kremlin plot to discredit the Duma.

In the current race, many candidates are widely suspected to be seeking office only to avoid prison. Among them is Saint Petersburg politician Yuri Shutov. Charged with arranging the murders of several businessmen, he was freed on bail several days ago -- specifically because he is a Duma candidate.

Another candidate under a cloud is wealthy tycoon Boris Berezovsky. Political observers say the only reason such an influential man would want to represent the North Caucasian republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessia is to avoid future prosecution. Some of his business dealings are currently under investigation. For his part, Berezovsky says he is so rich that he is the only candidate who cannot be bought.

Yet while politicians speak in public about lifting deputies' immunity, in private, some admit that the issue is actually about curbing abuse of the privilege. Reformist Grigory Yavlinsky's Yabloko party, which presents itself as a "clean hands" advocate, has said the question of immunity should be considered very carefully. Yabloko spokesperson Tatiana Morozova tells RFE/RL that the high number of alleged crooks running for the Duma shows that there is a problem. At the same time, she says, any tinkering with the immunity laws would open up the legislature to political pressure.

Boris Nadezhdin is a candidate for the Union of Right Forces and is organizing the bloc's proposed referendum. He says the idea is not to revoke immunity, but to lift some of the restrictions on criminal investigations against deputies.

Nikolai Shevshenko, a specialist in constitutional law, says the laws on immunity fills a need in an atmosphere of political amorality. In his words: "It is clear that if immunity were even slightly lessened, simple political warfare would turn into political warfare through criminal prosecutions."

A leading figure in the Communist Party, Anatoly Lukyanov, tells RFE/RL that his understanding of immunity is the same as the Russian Constitutional Court's. He says if the laws were properly applied, they would protect deputies from political pressure without providing cover for criminals.