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MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's parliament on Friday expelled a former Kremlin loyalist who joined the growing opposition movement, propelling President Vladimir Putin's crackdown on political dissent into the halls of power.
By punishing Gennady Gudkov, a fellow former KGB officer, Putin signaled his zero tolerance for any type of revolt within the political system. Gudkov's expulsion from the State Duma also means he loses his immunity from prosecution, and his supporters fear he could face arrest.
"We have come very close to the brink that separates an authoritarian regime from a dictatorship," said Gudkov, who was ostensibly ousted for running a business in violation of parliament rules, an allegation he denies.
The 293-150 vote to expel Gudkov came a day before the first major opposition rally since June, and it could help fan the flames of protest after the summer lull. Many activists already are angry over the two-year prison sentences handed down in August to three members of the punk band Pussy Riot for performing an irreverent anti-Putin song inside Moscow's main cathedral.
Since returning to the presidency in May after four years as prime minister, Putin has tightened the screws on a protest movement that drew tens of thousands to the streets over the winter. New laws have been passed to deter people from joining protests, and opposition leaders have faced searches and criminal investigations.
Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin political consultant, said Gudkov was targeted out of fears that his example might encourage other members of the political elite to join the opposition. Gudkov's behavior was like "a specter of the split in the elite that the Kremlin is so afraid of," Pavlovsky said. "It scared them a lot."
For most of the past decade, the State Duma — the lower house of parliament — has obediently rubber-stamped Kremlin bills. Moderate criticism was tolerated because a solid pro-Kremlin majority could ensure the safe passage of any legislation.
Gudkov, 56, was long part of that majority. He worked at the KGB, the Soviet secret police and intelligence agency, from 1981 until 1992, and then continued his career in its main successor agency before becoming a lawmaker in 2001.
He initially joined United Russia, the dominant Kremlin party, before moving in 2007 to Fair Russia, another Kremlin-created party that in recent years has begun to lean more toward the opposition. Gudkov was deputy chairman of the Duma's security committee and enjoyed good relations with many senior officials in security agencies.
But he had become increasingly critical of Kremlin policies in recent years, denouncing the government's inefficiency and corruption in official ranks.
A decisive moment came last winter when he surprisingly emerged at a giant opposition rally. The stout, mustachioed man cut a striking figure among young activists as he chanted "Putin, resign!" from the stage.
The backlash began after a May 6 rally on the eve of Putin's inauguration for his third term as president. The protest ended in clashes between protesters and police.
Authorities soon began inspections of a private security firm that Gudkov had set up and revoked its license, citing purported irregularities. Then investigators and prosecutors sent petitions to parliament claiming that Gudkov was running a separate business — a street market for construction materials — in violation of Duma regulations.
"For many years, Gudkov has been integrated in Putin's system of government and Putin's system of business," political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky said on Ekho Moskvy radio. "Putin does not forgive treachery."
Gudkov and his son, also a parliament member, struck back by releasing documents showing property and businesses owned by United Russia members. In his final remarks before Friday's vote, Gudkov said the stifling of dissent would lead only to greater protest.
"You are trying to muzzle critics with repression," he said. "You won't succeed. People can't be driven back to their kitchens. They will come out and demand honest elections and an honest life."
The expulsion sent a chill through other legislators. Communist deputy Vladimir Pozdnyakov said before the vote that it would put pressure on all lawmakers, adding, "We have no guarantee now that any other deputy will not end up in this meat grinder."
Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report.