Ilya Ponomaryov is one of just a few opposition members of the Russian State Duma. A left-leaning liberal representing Novosibirsk, Ponomaryov was the only member of the Duma to vote in March 2014 against Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.
In August 2014, a Russian court issued an order banning him from crossing the state border in connection with a civil case surrounding the funding of the Skolkovo innovation park outside of Moscow. Because that decision was made when he was outside the country, Ponomaryov now finds himself in the unusual situation of being a parliamentary representative who is not able to legally enter Russia. The court's decision remains in effect until Ponomaryov pays off a court-ordered settlement in that case -- which should happen in May because the state has garnered 100 percent of his wages as a Duma deputy.
On April 7, the Duma voted to lift Ponomaryov's parliamentary immunity from prosecution, clearing the way for prosecutors to file criminal charges in connection with the Skolkovo case. Authorities say they suspect the deputy of embezzling some 22 million rubles ($400,000) from the Skolkovo Foundation, charges that Ponomaryov denies.
Ponomaryov spoke by telephone with RFE/RL from the U.S. state of California.
RFE/RL: Now that the State Duma has lifted your immunity from prosecution, what is your next move? Do you have a Plan B?
Ilya Ponomaryov: This really doesn't change the situation. What does "lifting parliamentary immunity" mean? It gives the prosecutor-general and the Investigative Committee permission to open and investigate a criminal case. As far as my position and my actions are concerned, this doesn't change anything. Let them investigate -- that's their right. I am much more worried about the impossibility of returning to Russia because of a court bailiff decision that, I hope, will expire in May. That bailiff decision bars me from crossing the state border and it was issued on the basis of the alleged debt to the Skolkovo Foundation -- not part of a criminal case, but in the framework of a civil case. If they open a criminal case against me, they will be prosecuting me a second time in the same matter.
RFE/RL: So if you were summoned to face charges in a Russian court and decided to appear, you would not actually be able to?
Ponomaryov: It is even much stranger than that -- they aren't admitting into the country a deputy of the State Duma, a Class A state official. It is much stranger than just some ordinary defendant. But I think that in order to carry out some sort of investigation, they will obviously make some sort of exception and lift the travel ban.
RFE/RL: You have said you plan to return to Russia in May. Is that still the case, even if they open a criminal case against you?
Ponomaryov: I think there is nothing to discuss at least until May since the bailiff's order is still in effect. But after that, we'll see. It depends on what happens with this criminal case. I think that, most likely, they just want to threaten me, to make me nervous but that there won't be any real consequences from this. I might be wrong and they could be seriously intent on putting me in prison. If such a decision is made or if there are threats from the highest levels then, of course, I don't think it would be the most reasonable thing to do just to voluntarily walk into prison.
RFE/RL: Why haven't you applied to some foreign country for political asylum?
Ponomaryov: I wouldn't do that for anything. I do not intend to become a political emigre. I ended up here against my will. They intentionally waited until I was abroad on business to close the border to me. I am a Russian citizen. I am a deputy from Novosibirsk and I intend to remain such in the future. I don't intend to give them the satisfaction of applying for asylum somewhere or resigning my deputy's mandate.
RFE/RL: How do explain the situation that has developed around you? What are the authorities doing?
Ponomaryov: I think what we are seeing now is an intensified conflict between the so-called civilian and the militarized parts of the presidential administration. On one side, there is the FSB, the GRU, and other security organs and, on the other side, there are the "civilian" workers in the administration, [Kremlin adviser] Vladislav Surkov, and others. I think this case has been pulled out of the closet with the goal of digging up some dirty material against the "civilian" part of the administration. At least that is why the Skolkovo case was opened up in the first place. My name gave them a good opportunity to make some noise and to raise as much dirt as possible in this case. Although maybe everything is much simpler than that -- since I began around 10 days ago or so to say openly that I would return to Russia in May. Maybe someone in the Kremlin heard this and ordered the prosecutor to come up with a way to keep me from coming back.
RFE/RL: Wouldn't it be easier for them just to put you in prison?
Ponomaryov: Putting a person in prison means creating a political martyr. After what happened with [opposition figure and anticorruption blogger] Aleksei Navalny, they started to understand this is not the right approach and just makes politicians more visible. As far as the outside world is concerned, the entire Russian elite operates according to the principle "out of sight, out of mind." They think that a person can do whatever they want abroad but it isn't going to have much influence inside the country.
RFE/RL: Don't you think perhaps they are just punishing you for your independent positions in the Duma?
Ponomaryov: That is definitely playing a role and maybe I am over-complicating things by mentioning those political intrigues. But in politics people need to think about what is going to happen next and make decisions based on that rather than on the basis of what has already happened or what didn't happen. I think that when they made the decision not to let me into Russia in August -- it was made quite suddenly -- the main motivation was to prevent yet another vote by me on the Ukraine question. I think they were at the time considering a vote on use of troops in Ukraine and everything was prepared for that. And someone apparently decided it shouldn't happen the way it did last time and the vote has to be unanimous. And everything else followed from that.
RFE/RL: Looking back on the events of last spring after one year, do you regret your decision to vote against the annexation of Crimea?
Ponomaryov: I think the fact that I was right has become painfully obvious. I said a year ago that it would push countries toward NATO, that we would have an irreparable break with the Ukrainian people, that there would be war and a lot of bloodshed -- all of this has come to pass, unfortunately. So, of course, I voted absolutely correctly and I would vote in exactly the same way again. If I have any regrets, it is that for all these years I have been searching for compromises with the authorities, to find points of common ground, and to resolve certain issues constructively. Many radicals told me this was a pointless waste of time. Now, with these developments in Crimea and Ukraine, our authorities have shown that those radicals were right. It was senseless to try to correct the system in any way or to negotiate with them or to act within that framework.