SAN JOSE (CBS SF) — A Russian lawmaker who dared to stand up to President Vladimir Putin is for all intents and purposes stuck in San Jose.
Ilya Ponomarev came to the Bay Area 9-months ago, and didn’t expect to stay long.
“I was on the business trip with just my backpack,” Ponomarev said.
But while he was in the Bay Area, the Russian government accused Ponomarev of misappropriating $750,000 in public funds.
If Ponomarev returns to Moscow, he could be arrested.
“In the media, I am perceived very simply, as a national traitor,” he said.
But, Ponomarev calls the accusations political payback for daring to stand up to President Putin.
Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, and quickly annexed it, claiming Crimea historically belonged to Russia. The country’s legislative body called the Duma approved the takeover in a nearly unanimous vote. Ponomarev’s vote was the lone no-vote.
“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 said of Putin.
Ilya now lives in exile, but says he’s not a bystander. Through text messages, social media, and email he still maintains his post in the Duma, asking others to vote on his behalf, and drafting legislation he says will not be ignored.
Ponomarev believes his fellow politicians back home are too afraid to stand up to Putin.
“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,” Ponomarev said.
Several Putin critics have met untimely ends, including Alexander Litvienko, who was poisoned in London in 2006, and most recently Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead in Moscow’s Red Square two months ago.
Ponomarev’s bank accounts in Russia have been frozen, and his credit cards canceled. He says he has been getting by giving speeches and consulting.
Despite the risks, Ilya still wants to go back to Russia, where his wife and two kids still live.
“That’s my plan.”