Election monitors exposed an extraordinary legal loophole Wednesday with the disclosure that Russia's guarantee of parliamentary immunity has put on the ballot for upcoming elections 79 candidates with criminal pasts or pending indictments.
A list released by the Interior Ministry after an examination of police and court records of the 30,000 candidates registered for the Dec. 17 elections includes some Soviet-era dissidents jailed for fighting the totalitarian system, such as human rights champion and lawmaker Sergei A. Kovalev.
But many other candidates are being described as swindlers and mafia bigwigs hoping to elude justice by winning seats in the safehouse of the Duma, Parliament's lower chamber.
"We decided to distribute this list to the press because as citizens of this country we cannot be indifferent to what shape our next Parliament will be in," said Yuri A. Vedeneyev, spokesman for the Central Election Commission that called for the review of the candidates.
Russia's new election laws exclude from participation only people currently in prison, leaving ex-cons and indicted defendants free to run for offices that will protect them from further prosecution if they are elected.
International observers tracking Russia's progress toward multi-party democracy condemn the clause protecting elected officials from prosecution, saying it has perverted the political process.
"The citizens of most democratic countries must wait to suffer the disappointments of a few elected officials becoming crooked and criminal until after they are elected to office," said Michael Caputo, head of the Moscow office of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. "In Russia, the present laws encourage candidates with many years of experience."
The protective perquisites of membership in the 450-seat Duma have already been demonstrated in the case of Sergei Mavrodi, head of a failed pyramid investment scheme that deprived millions of depositors of their life savings. Last year, as criminal investigators closed in on him, Mavrodi sought and won an open Duma seat, which allowed him to escape prosecution on tax evasion and other charges.
Mavrodi was stripped of his parliamentary immunity by fellow Duma deputies earlier this month after repeated attempts by reform-minded economists to cleanse the government ranks.
But the Duma to be elected in December is expected to be more conservative, as reformist parties are now unpopular with voters tired of Russia's protracted transition to a free-market economy.
That is expected to make expulsion considerably more difficult, as anti-reform politicians conspire with criminal elements to further shackle the dwindling faction of liberals.