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Russia lawmaker quits over US property scandal

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The head of the Russian parliament's ethics committee resigned his seat on Wednesday after a leading anti-corruption crusader accused him of having US-based property worth over $2 million.

Ruling party lawmaker Vladimir Pekhtin quit after Alexei Navalny, arguably the most charismatic leader of Russia's opposition movement, accused him of owning luxury property in Florida that he had not declared.

The resignation of a prominent ruling party lawmaker is the biggest scalp yet for Navalny's anti-corruption investigations that have turned the lawyer into a figurehead of the anti-Vladimir Putin protest movement.

Property deeds and other documents that Navalny posted online this month show that Pekhtin, a member of the ruling United Russia party, and his son Alexei jointly own two condos in Miami Beach and a villa in Ormond Beach.

Navalny estimated the property to be worth over $2 million.

He and his allies have over the past weeks exposed several top officials they say own property in the West but Pekhtin is the first lawmaker to resign over the claims.

Pekhtin denied that he violated any laws and said the Russian opposition wanted to discredit the entire parliament.

"I do not want the unjustified accusations to cast a shadow over our party," he told the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, in televised remarks.

"That is why I made a difficult decision -- I will say that honestly -- to resign the post of a State Duma deputy," said the mustachioed lawmaker.

Pekhtin, 62, called the documents showing his co-ownership of the US property an "obvious legal misunderstanding" which he promised to fight.

"I don't have the slightest doubt that I will prove that I am right," said Pekhtin who over the past days has become the subject of ridicule online.

"We will fight on," he said to applause from his colleagues.

The Russian opposition charges that the parliament lacks legitimacy because December 4 parliamentary polls were slanted in favour of the ruling party.

Claims of vote fraud brought tens of thousands into the streets last year and encouraged opposition activists to cobble together an anti-Kremlin protest movement.

Since Putin's return to the Kremlin for a third term in May, the parliament has fast-tracked a number of controversial laws that critics say are designed to clamp down on civil society.

The opposition says pro-Kremlin lawmakers are hypocrites because many of the recently adopted laws are anti-Western yet many of the deputies have secret property in the West.

"To be fair, we have to admit that such a step by Pekhtin shows that he has the remnants of a conscience lingering somewhere deep down," Navalny wrote in his blog on Wednesday.

The documents on Pekhtin's US property were provided to Navalny by a like-minded blogger, known by his nickname doct-z, who is a Russian physicist residing in Spain.

The blogger doct-z, whose real name according to the opposition magazine The New Times is Andrei Zayakin, said on Wednesday that he and Navalny planned to expose more officials soon.

"This information gets accumulated faster than we are able to analyse and publish it," he told Kommersant FM radio.

Pro-opposition commentators praised the result, saying the tactic would prove rewarding after the unprecedented protests largely died down.

"This is exactly what the opposition needs to do now -- this way they can put out of action half of the United Russia top brass," said Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think-tank.

Russian lawmakers and top officials are widely known for their reluctance to step down over corruption allegations.

Analysts suggested that the party leadership had told Pekhtin to resign but colleagues praised his resignation as a bold move.

The parliament is debating amendments to a law that would protect personal privacy, in a move critics say is aimed at shielding lawmakers from investigations by the opposition.

Another United Russia lawmaker, Anatoly Lomakin, whose fortune the Russian edition of Forbes magazine puts at $1.2 billion, plans to resign because of ill health, officials said later Wednesday.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130220/russia-lawmaker-quits-over-us-property-scandal-0