Vienna, December 3 – Despite President Dmitry Medvedev’s much ballyhooed commitment to the rule of law, a Russian Constitutional Court justice has been forced out because he told a Spanish newspaper that “in Russia the security organs rule just as they like in Soviet times,” and another justice has announced that he will leave office as a result.
Yesterday, “Kommersant” reported that the Council of Judges of Russia the day before had accepted the retirement of Constitutional Court Justice Vladimir Yaroslavtsev and that Justice Anatoly Kononov had said that he would resign on January 1, 2010, before the completion of his term (www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1284828).
This superficially banal announcement, however, rapidly acquired political meaning when several other Constitutional Court justices told the Moscow paper that Yaroslavtsev had in fact been forced out for telling the Spanish newspaper “El Pais” at the end of August in which he said Russian security agencies control the country just as they did in Soviet times.
Elsewhere in that interview, Yaroslavtsev said that “the judiciary in Russia during the presidencies of Vladimir Putin and his successor Dmitry Medvedev had been converted into an instrument at the service of the executive powers that be” and that “the center of the adoption of [judicial} decisions is in the administration of the president.”
In addition, the justices continued, the departing justice had sharply criticized the Constitutional Court on which he served for refusing to consider the case of journalist Natalya Morar, who was unable to enter Russia because of a decision by the FSB and who had sought the protection of the courts.
The justices told “Kommersant” that in October “at a closed plenum of the collegium, for the first time in the history of the Constitutional Court, Yaroslavtsev was accused of violating the Code of Judicial Ethics and the law “On the status of judges,” which says that no judge “outside the frame of his professional activity” may “criticize the professional actions of his colleagues.”
Furthermore, this law allows the Council of Judges to subject any of its members who violate this provision to “disciplinary” action up to and including the end of his or her status as a judge. But in this case, the sources said, the “judicial majority” only expressed their lack of trust in Yaroslavtsev and recommend that he withdraw as a representative.
Yaroslavtsev himself confirmed that “he had fulfilled the recommendation of the plenum but refused to give any further commentary, and in the Council of Judges it was reported that his request for withdrawal was satisfied.” Kononov disagreed and told the media that “Yaroslavtsev in the best traditions was ‘removed’ at our plenum.”
In other comments, Kononov added that he considered a draft law that gives the Russian president rather than the justices themselves the right to choose the chairman of the Constitutional Court and his deputies “extremely undemocratic and disrespectful toward the Constitutional Court.” And he said that he personally was resigning at the start of 2010.
In a commentary, Kasparov.ru observer Yury Gladysh said that these events make a mockery of the entirely reasonable assumption that “a judge must serve the Law and the People rather than a narrow corporative community” or be “slavish” in his or her dependence on the powers that be (www.sobkorr.ru/news/4B160D7B5BB58.html).
Indeed, Gladysh continued, he did not imagine that such things were possible, especially now under Medvedev, a professional lawyer who has repeatedly committed himself to the rule of law. “But having opened the full test of the Code of Judicial Ethics,” the commentator said, he found that Russian law allows for exactly what happened.
It specifies, he points out that “a judge does not have the right to publicly, outside the frame of his professional activity to subject to doubt the decisions of judges that have legal force [or] to criticize the professional activities of his colleagues,” whatever his personal judgments about them may be.
This absurd code, Gladysh pointed out, was adopted at the Sixth All-Russian Congress of Judges on December 2, 2004. “Exactly five years ago to the day,” he said, Vladimir Putin was just acquiring the taste for power and “understood” that to build an authoritarian regime, he had to eliminate “unnecessary democratic institutions,” including independent judges.
At that time, the Kasparov.ru commentator pointed, “we were silent: Not only the judicial corps, but the entire people. Now, five years later, this past has come back to haunt Russia. And people can see what can happen when they fail to stand up for their rights and decide instead to defer to rulers who are pursuing their own, often authoritarian agendas.