MOSCOW -- A closed session of the Russian State Duma's ethics commission has exonerated senior lawmaker Leonid Slutsky of wrongdoing in connection with accusations by three female journalists that he sexually harassed them.
Commission chief Otari Arshba said after the decision on March 21 that Slutsky -- who was accused of making crude, unwanted advances toward the women, including trying to kiss them and touching them inappropriately -- had violated no "behavioral norms."
He suggested that the women's allegations were timed to create controversy ahead of the March 18 presidential election, in which incumbent President Vladimir Putin's victory was never in doubt.
The commission concluded that accusations against Slutsky were "selective, targeted, and planned," Arshba said.
He said the women -- Yekaterina Kotrikadze, a deputy editor with New-York-based RTVI television: Darya Zhuk, a producer with independent Dozhd TV; and BBC Russian correspondent Farida Rustamova -- accused Slutsky "almost simultaneously and on the eve of presidential election and a significant period of time after the alleged harassment."
Slutsky, 50, is a Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) deputy who chairs the International Relations Committee in the lower parliament house. In one of the exchanges in question, which was caught on audiotape, Slutsky is heard saying, "you don't want to kiss me, you've hurt my feelings," and later suggesting that the engaged journalist can be "my mistress."
Slutsky asked for forgiveness on Facebook on March 8, which Russia and other countries mark as International Women's Day. But he has denied wrongdoing and threatened to sue his accusers for defamation.
Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, Putin's former deputy of staff, told a group of female journalists that if they believe it is "dangerous" for them to work in the legislature they should change jobs.
Zhuk and Rustamova were invited to the commission's closed-door session. They reportedly declined to talk to journalists.
The text of the commission's final decision says that the commission is not authorized to perform forensics or tests of audio and other materials presented by the women as evidence.
A series of women including Ekho Moskvy radio station editor in chief Tatyana Felgengauer, a Putin critic who was the victim of a knife attack in October, protested outside the Duma during the hearing to call for justice and urge measures to combat sexual harassment.
They were constantly heckled by a pair of men who described themselves as members of the far-right South East Radical Bloc (SERB) movement, a group that routinely harasses the opposition.
"It's going to be a very long fight, because our government is not going to change," Inga Kelekhsayeva, a campaigner with Amnesty International's Russia office, told RFE/RL outside the Duma. "As you know, Putin is back again. And I think we'll have to fight hard to succeed."
Kelekhsayeva expressed skepticism as to whether the #MeToo movement that emerged after sexual harassment accusations against iconic Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and encourages women in the West with harassment stories to come forward would take root anytime soon in Russia.
"[It's] not only that people in Russia don't think that women's rights are very important, but the thing was that even Russian media, when they were covering this [#metoo] movement, they were mostly joking about it. And many Russian actors and actresses, they said that 'Oh, it's fine to harass women. Why do they just blame this Harvey Weinstein and other people?'"