PRAGUE -- A journalist with RFE/RL says he was groped and accosted more than a decade ago by Russian lawmaker and perennial presidential candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an allegation that could add fuel to scattered calls among Russians for a serious examination of abuse allegations against lawmakers and other officials.
Renat Davletgildeyev's accusation comes after a parliamentary ethics commission exonerated another senior Russian Duma deputy within Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) of sexual-harassment allegations from at least three journalists.
In a Facebook post and a later interview with Current Time TV on March 22, Davletgildeyev described the alleged incident in 2006 involving the ultranationalist firebrand, saying Zhirinovsky "pawed at my [buttocks] so much that my hands were trembling as they held the recorder."
Davletgildeyev, now 31, said he was working for the news site Gazeta.ru and reporting on the Miss Russia beauty contest at the time.
He said Zhirinovsky, a six-time presidential candidate who placed third in Russia's March 18 voting, had left the award ceremony early and Davletgildeyev followed him, seeking comment.
"As he was giving me a comment, he began to behave in an indecent way, touching my hands, shoulders, and my neck -- sorry, not neck, I'll give him that," he told Current Time. "He also touched my lower body parts, and then he left," he said, before adding that Zhirinovsky had touched his buttocks.
After, he said, men who he presumed were Zhirinovsky’s aides or security guards approached him and tried to persuade him to go to a sauna belonging to Zhirinovsky’s LDPR party.
"It seemed like a normal course of events for them. One of them even said, 'That’s what everyone does. Don’t be scared,'" Davletgildeyev said.
Current Time TV is a Russian-language TV channel produced by RFE/RL in collaboration with Voice of America.
Contacted by Current Time, Igor Lebedev, who is Zhirinovsky's son as well as deputy chairman of the party, declined to comment.
"I don't want to talk to you. What, I’m supposed to discuss your gay colleague with you? Have I fallen that low?" Lebedev said. "There is no problem of harassment in Russian society."
Yelena Afanasyeva, a lawmaker in Russia's upper chamber of parliament from Zhirinovsky's LDPR, suggested to Current Time on March 23 that the allegations were the result of "some foreign special services working in Russia" who are "trying to discredit some Russian politicians and trying to create hysteria in our country."
Afanasyeva also dismissed the growing number of sexual harassment allegations against Russian politicians as acts of self-promotion by journalists and "some gay activists," saying "there is no other way for these people to gain prominence."
A spokeswoman for the party also declined to comment.
Sexual-harassment complaints in the West sparked the #MeToo protest movement last year and have felled powerful men in the United States and other Western countries.
But the movement has failed to shake Russia’s male-dominated halls of power, and the recent accusations by journalists have spurred a rare public debate and a smattering of protest against sexism in the country.
Russian women often say they are routinely the targets of harassment in the workplace but can do little to prevent it, with their protests often falling on deaf ears.
On March 7, the speaker of the Russian State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, suggested that female journalists who report from the legislature should change their jobs if they can't cope with the behavior of lawmakers.
Davletgildeyev told Current Time TV he didn't regard posting his account of the incident on Facebook as an "outing" of Zhirinovsky, 71, because he had told acquaintances about the encounter and, in any event, "there is a group of people for whom this wasn't an outing but a piece of some well-known story."
Zhirinovsky, the longtime LDPR leader who has been in the Duma since 1993 and once spoke onstage at an event while embracing two topless models, has a long history of outlandish statements and actions.
In 2013, he told a classroom of teenagers in Moscow that suppressing the sex instinct can lead to sexual perversions, including homosexuality, and to mental diseases, according to The Moscow Times.
"Boys must like girls, and girls must like boys, and in the future you must create a family," the newspaper quoted him as saying.
One of the more memorable moments from the presidential campaign came during a debate among candidates on February 28 when Ksenia Sobchak doused Zhirinovsky with a glass of water for interrupting another candidate and using foul language. He called Sobchak a “whore” and a “mad fool” during the incident.
Davletgildeyev’s allegations also come after some of Russian media’s best-known outlets said they were withdrawing their reporters from parliament's lower chamber, the State Duma, after lawmaker Leonid Slutsky, 50, was cleared by a legislative ethics commission.
Commission Chairman Otari Arshba said the accusations against Slutsky were "selective, targeted, and planned,” and asserted they were timed to create controversy ahead of the election that handed President Vladimir Putin a new six-year term.
Slutsky, also an LDPR member and chairman of the chamber’s Foreign Affairs Committee, had been accused of making crude, unwanted advances toward the reporters, including trying to kiss them and touching them inappropriately.
The reporters included 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.
On March 21, the Duma Ethics Commission found that Slutsky had violated no "behavioral norms," prompting Aleksei Venediktov, the chief editor of the radio station Ekho Moskvy, to say the station was “disappointed” with the commission's decision” and "considers the State Duma an unsafe place for journalists to work."
During the hearings, Zhirinovsky tried to deflect criticism of Slutsky and the LDPR party by accusing the female journalists of "receiving orders from the West."
Oksana Pushkina, a Duma deputy from the ruling United Russia party and a former journalist, expressed support for the outlets.
"The problem [of sexual harassment] exists in this country and it must be tackled through legislation," she told state-run news agency RIA Novosti. "I will do everything in my power."
But discussion during the commission’s hearings shows just how hard the battle may be.
Anton Morozov, a member of the Duma, turned the allegations against Slutsky into a punchline, saying, “Mr. Slutsky, this is outrageous! Share some of this with the other members of the international affairs committee.”
"I'm prepared to take a couple of journalist girls myself," he added.