Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Why the European Human Rights Court Matters So Much for Russia

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 2 – For the last decade, the European Court for Human Rights has become the court of last resort for Russians, one that limits some official arbitrariness in their country while giving them some hope for justice – even though Moscow often flouts that court’s decisions and is now trying to restrict the impact of the Strasbourg body.
Given that Russian judges still routinely follow the lead of prosecutors and acquit only one half of one percent of all defendants -- a figure far lower than the 10 percent acquittal rate of Stalin’s notorious “troikas” ( – an appeal to Strasbourg is often the only hope many Russian citizens have for justice.
Strasbourg’s impact on Russia began in May 1998, when under then-President Boris Yeltsin, the Russian Federation acceded to the European Convention on Human Rights. Under its terms, Russians gained the right to take their cases to the Strasbourg court when they believed that officials had violated their rights and when all domestic appeals had been exhausted.
For four years after that, Krill Koroteyev, a Russian scholar at the Sorbonne, says in an essay posted on a Russian analytic portal today, few Russians succeeded in bringing cases to that court, and most Russian officials assumed that the Strasbourg institution would not have a significant impact on Moscow’s actions (
But in May 2002, the court ruled against Moscow for the first time, an action that attracted massive coverage in the Russian media and generated a new wave of Russian cases. And since 2005, the number of cases in which the court has found for Russian citizens so often that some Russian officials say Moscow is now living “under the heel of Strasbourg.”
Over the last few years, Koroteyev recounts, Russians have brought more cases to Strasbourg than the citizens of any other country. Indeed, “Russian” cases account for approximately 20 percent of all those filed with the court, and even though only a small percentage are ever heard, more than 500 have been.
In most cases, the Russian suits involve issues of selective prosecution, unwarranted delays in the judicial process, detention without cause, ecological issues – the number of these is small but has had a big impact on Russian plans -- and extraditions and deportations to the countries of Central Asia. In these cases, Strasbourg tells Moscow to observe its own laws.
The Russian authorities seldom react well to this directive, the courts because they feel that they are obeying the laws and resent any outside oversight and the political leadership because it believes that the Strasbourg court is interfering in what the Kremlin believes is properly Russia’s internal affairs.
There is one category of appeals to the Strasbourg court that is especially sensitive in this regard: appeals by Chechens about the actions of the Russian authorities. There have been more than 30 such cases, and Strasbourg has in almost every case ruled against the Russian government, something many Russians find insupportable.
Drawing on this support, Moscow has sought to impede these hearings by refusing to provide documents and then has often refused to abide by the decisions of the Strasbourg court, even though the Russian Constitution specifies that the country’s treaty obligations take precedence even over its own constitution.
Russian politicians remain outraged by Strasbourg’s decisions on the Chechens and at the end of 2006, Koroteyev points out, the Duma “refused to ratify” a significant protocol modifying the European Convention on the grounds that the amendment “contradicts the principles of Russian law.”
Now, the Kremlin is trying a new tact. Having suffered a series of stinging defeats in cases involving Chechens, the Russian government plans to appoint an official to represent its interests at the Strasbourg court, an official Russian lawyers say is distinguished not by his legal “genius” but by his willingness to follow every twist and turn of leadership policy.
But as his two predecessors in that job have found, so too Viktor Yevtukhov is likely to discover, putting the genie of justice from Strasbourg that many Russians have come to expect back in the bottle may prove far more difficult and costly than either he or his Moscow backers imagine (

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