Transparency International is coming under renewed pressure in Russia, where senior lawmakers are calling for the global anticorruption watchdog’s local affiliate to be investigated -- or even banned altogether -- for allegedly threatening a member of parliament.
The escalating standoff between the officials and Transparency International Russia follows anticorruption protests across Russia in March that resulted in scores of arrests, and comes amid a push by Kremlin critics to make graft a central issue in next year’s presidential election.
The furor erupted over the weekend when Natalya Poklonskaya, a deputy in the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, suggested Transparency International Russia and opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s anticorruption foundation were themselves mixed up in malfeasance.
"Maybe it would be a good thing to investigate them for corruption. Because, as they say, a guilty mind betrays itself. Maybe that’s why they yell louder than everyone else," Poklonskaya, the former Russia-installed prosecutor-general in Crimea, told Rambler News Service in an interview published May 20.
Investigations of officials’ assets by anticorruption crusaders and independent media outlets have become a central weapon in the opposition’s battle against the country’s ruling class.
These probes have, in a few cases, helped force officials out of office but have yet to lead to electoral breakthroughs for Kremlin opponents in Russia’s tightly controlled political landscape under President Vladimir Putin.
They have, nonetheless, long irritated the Kremlin and its loyalists, who have accused Navalny and others of acting as agents of foreign powers in a bid to destabilize Russia.
The deputy head of Transparency International Russia, Ilya Shumanov, fired back on Facebook on May 20 following Poklonskaya’s interview, writing: "I wanted to relax a little bit, and instead we’ll have to launch an investigation against Madame Ex-Prosecutor."
Shumanov’s organization has previously been the target of officials’ ire, most notably in connection with its receipt of foreign funding -- income that is heavily scrutinized by authorities and often used to exert pressure on NGOs and other organizations under legislation critics call draconian.
But his post triggered an avalanche of official outrage against the group, which set up shop in Russia nearly two decades ago.
Senior lawmakers in Putin’s ruling United Russia party denounced Shumanov, suggesting he may be trying to "blackmail" or "threaten" Poklonskaya.
And on May 22, a senior United Russia official said he had formally asked federal prosecutors to examine whether Shumanov’s post was an attempt to exert "undue influence" on Poklonskaya, who heads a Duma commission that oversees lawmakers’ income and asset declarations.
"If any violations of Russian law are uncovered, we request that prosecutors respond with appropriate measures," Vasily Piskaryov, head of the Duma’s security and anticorruption committee, said in a statement.
'Enemies Of Russia'
Shumanov said in an interview with RFE/RL that the reaction to his Facebook post demonstrates a "narrow" thought process by officials.
"They think this is some kind of blackmail, an attempt to influence or pressure them," he said. "No. If you publicly announce a desire to investigate [someone], you have to be ready to be investigated yourself."
United Russia deputy Yevgeny Fyodorov, meanwhile, said Transparency International Russia should be shuttered under a 2015 law targeting foreign groups deemed to pose "a threat to Russia's defense capabilities, security, public order, [or] public health."
Fyodorov told RFE/RL that, under this law, he and his colleagues would ask federal prosecutors to declare Transparency International Russia an "undesirable" organization and end its work in Russia.
"It’s simple: Enemies of Russia should not befoul Russia," he said.
Shumanov and other Transparency International Russia representatives note that the organization is actually a registered Russian entity and that authorities regularly scrutinize its finances due to its "foreign agent" status. Russia introduced that designation in 2012 for organizations that receive foreign funding and are deemed to engage in "political" activities.
The organization was designated a “foreign agent” in 2015 for funding it received from Transparency International’s global headquarters in Berlin and for a 2014 press release on corruption that prosecutors deemed "interference" in the government’s anticorruption efforts.
Transparency International Russia, which has also reported receiving financing from the U.S. State Department, says the designation is without legal merit.
Both the "foreign agent" and the "undesirables" laws have been criticized by rights activist and Western governments as efforts to stigmatize and marginalize civil-society groups.
'Rich Prospective Bride'
Shumanov said the onslaught may be a reaction to his organization’s high-profile investigations, including one last week on United Russia lawmaker Vladimir Resin’s alleged ties to firms reportedly seeking tenders in a massive -- and controversial -- Kremlin-backed housing project in Moscow.
Yury Dzhibladze, an activist and a former member of the Kremlin’s human rights council, said efforts to discredit Transparency International Russia and Navalny’s anticorruption group could be tied to the March 26 anticorruption protests and fresh ones Navalny is planning for June 12.
Any group conducting "anticorruption investigations in this situation is seen as a threat," Dzhibladze told RFE/RL.
Navalny and his team have published numerous investigations of senior Russian officials and their assets, including one of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev that was the focus of the March protests.
Transparency International Russia in April asked Putin in a letter to look into potential conflicts of interest involving Medvedev and other individuals cited in Navalny’s report.
Meanwhile, Poklonskaya, a Kremlin loyalist who has come under criticism for pronouncements she has made on a range of issues, said she’d welcome scrutiny of her assets.
"If they plan to pin yachts, fairy-tale palaces, airplanes, and helicopters on me, then I’d at least like to be invited to such a viewing," she said in an audio statement posted on SoundCloud. "What if it turns out I’m a rich prospective bride and I don’t even know it?"
With reporting by RFE/RL’s Russian Service