MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian provincial lawmaker who, in a rare show of defiance, accused the Kremlin of lying about whether it sent its forces to fight in Ukraine was stripped of his seat in the local parliament on Thursday.
Lev Shlosberg was beaten up last year by unknown assailants days after he alleged that paratroopers buried at a cemetery in his hometown of Pskov had been killed in a clandestine operation in eastern Ukraine.
He said he had now been stripped of his seat in the Pskov regional assembly as punishment for, among other things, challenging the official Kremlin position that no serving Russian troops are fighting in eastern Ukraine.
“This is the authorities’ revenge,” Shlosberg, 52, told Reuters by telephone after his fellow lawmakers in the assembly voted to eject him.
“For opening my mouth, for not being silent, for setting out in public what is happening, for calling a spade a spade,” said Shlosberg, a teacher who became a political activist after the fall of Communism 25 years ago.
Sergei Makarchenko, one of the local legislators who voted for Shlosberg to be kicked out, said there was no political agenda behind his expulsion. He said Shlosberg had to be removed because he broke a law on the status of lawmakers.
But he acknowledged Shlosberg’s stance on the Pskov paratroopers had made him enemies.
“I stopped shaking his hand or talking to him a year back, when he stared kicking up a fuss about the huge losses among the paratroop division, which wasn’t true,” Makarchenko said.
The motion to strip Shlosberg of his seat was based on allegations that he broke a rule barring lawmakers from representing parties to a court case.
He had appeared in court to challenge the government’s decision to declare that a non-governmental organization he founded was a “foreign agent” - a designation often attached to groups seen by the authorities as troublesome.
Shlosberg and his party, the opposition Yabloko grouping, denied he had broken any rules.
Asked about Shlosberg’s expulsion on Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment, saying it was “not really a question for the Kremlin”.
For a brief period last August, Shlosberg prised open a crack in the Kremlin’s denials about the Russian military’s role in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Moscow rebels have been fighting Kiev’s forces.
The tiny local newspaper that he runs matched identity documents found on dead combatants in Ukraine to the fresh graves in Pskov of two paratroopers, Leonid Kichatkin and Alexander Osipov, who were killed earlier that month in unexplained circumstances.
Hours after Shlosberg went public, the inscriptions were removed from the graves, and young men in track suits chased reporters out of the cemetery. Days later, Shlosberg was hospitalized after he was beaten unconscious near his home.
His case is unusual because, 15 years into Vladimir Putin’s tenure as Russia’s paramount leader, it is rare for anyone to stand up to the Kremlin publicly.
Many Russians admire Putin for restoring Russian national pride, while those who don’t usually stay quiet, especially in the provinces where people willing to voice dissent are few and vulnerable to pressure from local authorities.
Shlosberg, a small, trim man with greying hair, said he was not afraid to stand out.
He travels around Pskov on a pushbike - in contrast to most local officials who see government saloon cars as an important status symbol - and works out of two tiny rooms, one of which doubles as the headquarters of his newspaper.
A friend of his, Konstantin Gorozhanko, said Shlosberg often had no money, and even went without food, because he used cash from his own pocket to keep his newspaper running. “He’s like a hermit,” Gorozhanko said.
Shlosberg said he got involved in politics in the 1990s because he saw an opportunity to build a new state out of the ruins of Communism.
“Instead of a new state, a monster grew up, which destroys people,” he said. “Everybody has to decide for themselves what to do with a state like that.”
Additional reporting by Denis Dyomkin; Editing by Christian Lowe and Andrew Heavens