Ilya Ponomarev, the lone figure in Russia’s Duma to vote against Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014, thus opposing Russian President Vladimir Putin, cannot return to his wife and children in his native country after he visited San Jose nine months ago. Putin has effectively barred Ponomarev from returning, as the Russian government accused him of using $750,000 in public funds for his own benefit and he could be arrested if he travels back to Russia.
Ponomarev, who is still in San Jose, recalled to the local CBS News affiliate, “I was on the business trip with just my backpack,“ adding, “In the media, I am perceived very simply, as a national traitor.” Commenting on his accuser, Ponomarev told CBS San Francisco, “He is the manipulator. \ His image, which is propagated into the outside world is the image of a strong leader, but he is not.”
Ponomarev has been a thorn in Putin’s side for years. In 2012, he joined fellow MP Dmitry G Gudkov to lead street protests against Putin. He also accused Putin of voting fraud after the March 4, 2012 presidential election. In June 2012, he joined Gudkov in a filibuster against Putin’s United Russia party; the same month, he spoke in the Duma and called Putin’s party a group of “swindlers and thieves.” He was censured by the Duma in September 2012 and barred from speaking for one month.
The Russian exile still holds his post in the Duma; he communicates with others in the Duma by text messages, social media, and email, urging them to vote in his place and writing bills to be submitted. However, he maintains other members of the Duma are frightened of Putin, saying, “It’s a question of personal political career, and they understand there are no free elections in Russia, so they are very much decided by Kremlin who is going to run, and who is going to win.”
The Duma has reason to fear Putin; two prominent opponents of Putin have died in mysterious circumstances: Alexander Litvienko, poisoned in London in 2006, and Boris Nemtsov, shot to death in Moscow’s Red Square in March.
Ponomarev has eked out a living in the United States by offering speeches and consulting, CBS News reports, since his Russian bank accounts have been frozen and his credit cards canceled. He still intends to return to his wife and children, even though he may be jailed.