It's not often that Russian anti-corruption activists can boast about their results. This week is one of those times. On February 12, 2013, head of RossPil and Coordinating Council of the Opposition member, Alexey Navalny, wrote [ru] a long post accusing the Chairman of the Duma Ethics Committee, Vladimir Pekhtin, of breaching parliamentary ethics. He alleged that Pekhtin has failed to declare over two million USD worth of Florida real estate in his Declaration of Income and Assets [ru]. Russian officials are obligated to make such declarations. Remarkably, after several days of incessant harrying from media and bloggers like Navalny, on February 20 Pekhtin finally resigned [ru].
As head of the Ethics Committee, Pekhtin has long been openly hostile to the three Just Russia MPs who also happen to be active members of the opposition — the Gudkovs (father and son), and Ilya Ponomarev. Last summer Pekhtin accused them of instigating the crowd at a May 6, 2012 rally that turned violent, prompting Dmitry Gudkov to invent the term “pekhting” [ru] to describe such political pressure. This history and Pekhtin's position made accusations against him even more biting.
Although Navalny got most of the credit for breaking the story, the detailed minutia of real estate contracts for Pekhtin's two apartments and a plot of land in Miami was originally worked out [ru] by a newcomer to online anti-corruption activism. The legwork was done by Dr. Z, a physicist blogging from Spain [ru], who started his blog last spring [ru], stating:
Мое хобби – антикоррупционные расследования.
My hobby – anti-corruption investigations.
Before he published the Pekhtin story, Dr. Z dabbled in substantiating plagiarism accusations [ru] against several Duma deputies. Then, on February 6, he posted detailed guidelines [ru] on how to track down foreign property owned by Russian politicians, using Western public domain records and registries. Pekhtin appears to have been the first of Dr. Z's forays into such research. Curiously, while Navalny thanked Dr. Z for giving him a “heads up” on Pekhtin, he never made it clear that around 80% of the materials he posted were first found and published by Dr. Z. Navalny also didn't link to the original post. Dr. Z doesn't seem to mind — at least he hasn't publicly complained.
While Dr. Z's allegiances are unclear (one blogger [ru] has interpreted some of his interviews to mean that he is backed by former Finance Minister Alexey Kudrin and a group of government officials hostile to the siloviki), his results are impressive. Pekhtin's resignation came as a surprise to many, including Navalny, who complained [ru] upon seeing the news:
Немного жаль $189 долларов, которые нам прийдётся заплатить за получение, апостилирование и пересылку оригиналов документов о его недвижимости. Они придут в Москву завтра, но уже не пригодятся (а может и пригодятся). Было бы славное разбирательство.
I'm a little sorry for the $189 dollars that we are going to pay for the delivery, notarization, an forwarding of the original documents on his real estate. They will arrive to Moscow tomorrow, but now they won't be needed (or maybe they will). It would have been a grand inquest.
Most, including publicist Dmitry Olshansky, predicted that nothing would come of the accusations — Pekhtin didn't do anything criminal, just unethical, and Russian politicians tend to protect their own. Olshansky compared [ru] Russia to a third world country:
Однако печатать остроумные разоблачения в Нью-Йорке – это одно, а делать то же самое где-нибудь в Африке – совсем другое. Если в Нью-Йорке разоблачитель добьется позора, судов и отставок на голову своих героев, то в Африке он будет долго прикреплять свои бумажки к пальмам и баобабам, а потом приедут государственники с чулками на головах и увезут разоблачителя неизвестно куда.
But publishing clever exposes in New York is one thing, and doing the same somewhere in Africa is another. If in New York the whistle-blower will achieve shaming, trials, and resignations for his subjects, in Africa he will spend a long while affixing the posters to palms and baobab trees, and then state supporters with stockings on their heads will come and take him away who knows where.
But, of course, a resignation was precisely what happened. Why? Perhaps Pekhtin was simply not important enough to protect — after all, by the standards of corrupt Russian officials two million dollars worth of real estate is practically peanuts. Or maybe, Putin, who has already distanced himself from the ruling United Russia party, is himself gearing up to corner the market on fighting graft. Pekhtin's sworn enemy, MP Dmitry Gudkov, was not particularly happy with that idea, or with how the deed was done, tweeting [ru] darkly:
Я,кстати,не радуюсь отставке Пехтина. Все равно решение приняли за него в Кремле. Я против размандачивания без суда и следствия.Даже Пехтина [...] Отставкой Пехтина все не закончится. [...] Закончится роспуском ГД, думаю
By the way, I'm not that happy with Pekhtin's resignation. The decision was made for him in the Kremlin anyway. I am against stripping office without trial and investigation. Even for Pekhtin. [...] It won't end with Pekhtin's resignation. [...] I think it will end with the parliament dissolving
DemVybor's second in command, Kirill Shulika, disagreed [ru], thinking that its more likely that Putin is finally becoming embroiled in faction-based elite infighting:
Есть мнение, что теперь Путин будет сдавать всех попавшихся, но мне думается, что это не совсем так. Скорее, если брать Думу, будет баланс между “Единой Россией” и оппозицией, а если брать исполнительную власть, то тут жертвы будут в межклановых войнах.
There's an opinion that now Putin will give up anyone who gets caught, but I don't think so. More likely, if you take the Duma, there will be a balance between “United Russia” and the opposition, and if you take the executive branch, the victims will come from inter-clan warfare.
Regardless of the upshot, there is one bright thought: apparently, even in Russia, internet campaigns against corrupt officials aren't completely useless.