Among the 6,736 candidates running for Russia's lower house of parliament in next month's elections, Sergei Mikhailov has been especially persistent in trying to get on the ballot.
First, he was included as a candidate on the party list of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the flamboyant ultranationalist. But Zhirinovsky's list was disqualified by the election commission because of incomplete financial disclosure statements.
Then Mikhailov tried to register as a candidate in a single-member district in the city of Taganrog, in southern Russia. He was turned down because of questions about his citizenship--he is said to hold a Greek passport in addition to, or in place of, his Russian one.
Mikhailov, 41, may have a special reason for seeking elective office: A seat in the Duma brings immunity from criminal prosecution. He was tried in Switzerland last year on charges of belonging to a criminal organization. Although acquitted for lack of evidence and sent back to Russia, he is widely known here as Mikhas, head of one of Moscow's biggest criminal organizations.
Mikhailov's electoral bid is only one of many troublesome signs that criminals and shady businessmen are trying to infiltrate the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, in the elections scheduled for Dec. 19.
Whether they will succeed is not yet clear, nor is it even known how widespread the problem is. The rule of law is so weak, the shadow economy so large, capital flight so persistent and tax evasion so pervasive that the very definition of criminal in Russia is not as clear as in the West.
What is clear is that a seat in the legislature provides protection from the law. Under the 1993 Russian constitution, members of both chambers of the Russian legislature enjoy immunity while in office. The constitution says a member cannot be detained, arrested or subject to search except in cases when detained in the act of committing a crime, and may not be personally searched except in cases where another person appears to be endangered.
This immunity was designed to protect members against blackmail for their views. But in Russia's early years of wild capitalism, it has taken on another meaning--a shield against prosecution.
"It is very troubling," said Konstantin Borovoi, an independent member of the parliament who was one of Russia's early business leaders. "I think it can be dangerous. I saw a lot of people from the criminal world who are now in the Duma. They are very strange in their political activity--they are closer to criminals than politicians."
Some reformist politicians have called for canceling the immunity for lawmakers. The former governor of the Nizhniy Novgorod region, Boris Nemtsov, who is running this year on a ticket of pro-market reformers, has put up billboards with his picture and the slogan, "Cancel Deputies' Immunity."
But the issue has not caused a stir, and there is no sign that the parliament intends to deprive itself of immunity any time soon.
"We need to cancel it," said Borovoi. "Because the idea of immunity is connected with the possibility of attacks on one's political activity, so that you can't blackmail the politicians. But . . . there are few examples of authentic blackmailing."
William Smirnov, a legal expert at the Institute of State and Law of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said immunity "should be preserved" as a principle. "This is a generally recognized standard that guarantees the independence--I underline, the independence--of a deputy of a representative body," he said. "The people's representatives should have the right to express their political views, to take a position without looking back at anybody."
Under the constitution, a lawmaker's immunity can be stripped only on a recommendation of the chief prosecutor and a vote of the chamber. Rather than throw out the principle of immunity, Smirnov said it should be made easier to revoke.
Meanwhile, some people who have been prosecuted, or might in the future face prosecution, are lining up to be candidates.
Alexander Shmonov, who attempted to assassinate then-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, is running for election in St. Petersburg. Shmonov served time in a mental institution after he brought a gun to Red Square and tried to shoot Gorbachev during a parade. He failed and was arrested.
Yelena Mavrodi, wife of a well-known pyramid scheme artist in the early 1990s, is running from a district in Tula, south of Moscow.
Zhirinovsky's ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party was recently disqualified by the Central Election Commission because of gaps in financial disclosure statements of top candidates. The commission requires disclosure of a candidate's income and property, and it said Zhirinovsky and others failed to list fancy cars and houses they owned.
In addition to Mikhailov, Zhirinovsky's list included Anatoly Bykov, a Siberian aluminum magnate who has been arrested in Hungary to be returned to face corruption charges in Russia.
Zhirinovsky dropped some candidates, reformulated his list and was later re-registered under a new name, Zhirinovsky's Bloc.
The election commission's financial disclosure statements have been ridiculed as weak. The commission requires disclosure of income and property, but most sophisticated politicians have long hidden their riches from Russian taxes, so their disclosure statements make them look like paupers.
Sergei Markov, a political analyst here, wrote recently in Harvard University's Russian Election Watch that "a famous businessman or a public figure, who owns a fashionable car, visits world-famous resorts and works in a luxurious office, is on paper very poor."
Mikhailov listed his annual income as 1,388 rubles, or $53. However, since he didn't get enough signatures to get on the ballot, he instead paid a fee of 83,490 rubles or $3,211. "In other words, he parted with 60 annual incomes," scoffed the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.
In some cases, wealthy Russian businessmen are running for the Duma for a combination of reasons--power and influence--and immunity from prosecution may be only a fringe benefit.
They often choose to run in remote single-mandate districts where they stand a better chance of winning, or in ethnic republics where the voting populations are smaller. (Half of the Duma is elected from party lists and the other half from single-member districts, but not all have equal populations.)
Roman Abramovich, a wealthy owner of the Sibneft oil company who is close to the tycoon Boris Berezovsky, is running for parliament from a district in Chukotka, an Arctic region. Berezovsky is on the ballot form in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, an ethnic republic in southern Russia that recently has been riven by unrest.
Until last week, Berezovsky had been the subject of a criminal investigation into his handling of cash from the national airline Aeroflot, but prosecutors announced he is no longer a target of the probe. Berezovsky said he is innocent. He said immunity from prosecution "is definitely not the reason" he decided to run.
Berezovsky said he is devoting "95 percent of my time to politics" and his reason for running is to formalize his political status. Noting that his critics often accuse him of back-room deals, he added, "I want to reach an absolutely open position."
"It's not words but my deepest belief," Berezovsky said, that immunity "has not lived up to what it was designed for." He added, "Today we see that the protection the deputy has been given has not become the basis for his sincerity and independence."
"What is protection for? Protection is needed to make one independent and able to express his point of view," Berezovsky said. "Today, we can see how deputies are being sold and bought. This means that the . . . immunity mechanism has not justified itself. Quite the contrary. We know that there are many attempts to penetrate into power by persons with a criminal past--something which is not prohibited, if you will--and a criminal present, of which we have seen examples."