March 12 (Bloomberg) -- Talk about the fox guarding the chicken coop: The Russian parliament’s chief corruption fighter has been accused of failing to declare a $3 million apartment in Moscow. It’s the latest in a series of “outings” by Russia’s anarchic opposition, bizarrely coinciding with President Vladimir Putin’s own anti-corruption campaign.
On March 11, the anti-Putin weekly New Times reported that Irina Yarovaya, head of the parliament’s Security and Corruption Fighting Committee, was living in an apartment worth $2,898,000, registered in the name of her 17-year-old daughter. The condo, expensive even by the standards of Moscow’s overheated property market, never appeared on the parliament member’s obligatory declarations. Neither Yarovaya nor her businessman husband have ever declared income that would have allowed them to buy prime real estate in Russia’s capital.
Opposition media and bloggers immediately picked up the story, which had a special attraction due to Yarovaya’s political history. A native of the remote Kamchatka region, she was deputy head of the opposition Yabloko party until she switched allegiance to Putin’s United Russia in 2007. Yabloko leader Sergei Mitrokhin recalled: “By the end of her career in Yabloko she became deputy head of the party. She did nothing remarkable in that position but she asked for a transfer to Moscow, an apartment and a car. Naturally, we did not have the money for any of that. United Russia did.”
Crusading blogger Alexei Navalny, also once a Yabloko functionary, gleefully reposted the New Times story, commenting: “I remember her at the party convention screaming from the stand about what a scoundrel and disgusting thief Putin was. United Russia was something straight out of hell, according to her.”
Yarovaya is one of the most active United Russia members in parliament. She has backed all the repressive laws passed in the first year of Putin’s third term in power. She also wants to be seen as a tough corruption fighter: Yarovaya has proposed a bill instituting spending controls for parliament deputies and top officials. Such a catch seemed beyond the opposition’s wildest dreams.
What the New Times did to Yarovaya has a name: pekhting. Coined in June 2012 to describe the proceedings of the parliament’s ethics commission, then headed by Vladimir Pekhtin, the term became popular last month when Pekhtin was forced to resign his seat after revelations that he owned undeclared real estate in Florida.
The ethics chief was “outed” by a diligent blogger calling himself Doctor Z. His blog is completely dedicated to digging up dirt on ranking United Russia members and Russian government officials. Doctor Z’s discoveries include several cases of plagiarism in politicians’ doctoral theses and a number of well-researched exposes featuring undeclared property.
Doctor Z claims to have run the names of all the Russian parliamentary deputies through U.S. property registers. He promises more revelations.
“The very fact that Mr. Pekhtin has quit his post as the most ethical parliament deputy means that my work is not without results. The system is beginning to give up its own people,” the mysterious blogger told Novaya Gazeta in a Skype interview. “Putin probably understands that by giving up these people, he becomes weaker. But if he doesn’t give them up, a bigger wave of protest could start.”
After Pekhtin’s resignation, two more United Russia members voluntarily gave up their seats without waiting for the opposition to move against them. Putin’s spin doctors have tried to present the developments as part of the president’s cleansing campaign, which started late last year with the firing of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov following a corruption scandal.
“Pekhtin’s decision to give up his mandate is a continuation of the anti-corruption campaign that the president initiated,” political analyst Sergei Markov told the website actualcomment.ru. “Many doubted its efficiency, but now we see concrete results.”
The unexpected entente between Putin and his opponents in the matter of curbing Russia’s rampant corruption does not mean, however, that every time the opposition digs something up, the Kremlin is going to act on it.
Yarovaya, for her part, has fought back and kept her parliament seat. She explained that in 2006, when the apartment was purchased, it had cost much less than $3 million and that according to laws in effect at the time, it did not have to be declared. Now, it belongs to her daughter who is no longer a minor, so again no law requires the parliament deputy to declare it.
“I can only sympathize sincerely with my ill-wishers who, acting in bad faith, tried to discredit me,” Yarovaya told the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti. “They failed. All this is just a dirty insinuation.”
Even anti-Putin commentators had to admit that, according to the letter of the law, she was blameless. All they could do was point out the ethically murky nature of her explanations. “You can say what you want, but Yarovaya lives in an apartment that she can never afford on a parliament deputy’s income,” columnist Anton Orekh said on Ekho Moskvy radio. “Even if everything is legally OK, in fact we are dealing with deception and such a person has no right to remain a deputy.”
As he attempts to hijack the opposition’s anti-corruption agenda, Putin is ever conscious that he cannot concede too much. In his Moscow, there must never be the tiniest hint of a doubt as to who is boss and who does the punishing. In other words, Russia’s place near the bottom of Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index -- at number 133 in the world -- remains secure.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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