Supreme Court, Putin holds key to Russia’s world position

Publish date: April 10, 2000

Written by: Thomas Jandl

In his virtual campaign for President, Vladimir Putin spoke about the need for the "dictatorship of the law" as a basis for the world's trust in Russia. International observers of Russia's reforms are again looking towards the Nikitin case in trying to determine what wins out, the "law" or the "dictatorship."

Supreme Court,

The Supreme Court drew attention when it postponed the hearing on the prosecution’s appeal against nuclear whistle blower Aleksandr Nikitin on March 29, based on a request by the Prosecutor General’s office. Nikitin had been acquitted of all charges in relation to his contributions to Bellona’s Northern Fleet report on December 29, 1999.

The postponement was remarkable because it violates procedural rules allowing only the chair or the vice chair of the Supreme Court to postpone a hearing, and even then only for significant cause. On March 29, the presiding judge Karimov postponed the hearing simply because the Prosecutor General’s office asked him to. Neither the chair nor the vice chair were as much as consulted about the decision, and the decision was not offered to the parties to discuss.

A revered institution

In democracies, judges are among the most respected individuals in the community. In the United States, the Supreme Court is regularly called upon to settle the most divisive issues in society. Thus Americans are particularly shocked to see a Supreme Court violate legal rules, even if the postponement itself has so far not done any major harm to the progress in the Nikitin case itself. It is the signal, however, either that Supreme Court Justices are unaware of rules governing their own behavior, or that they are willing to break these rules to serve the expediencies of the day, that unsettles observers.

Amnesty International, which has adopted Nikitin as post-Soviet Russia’s first prisoner of conscience, went into alarm gear immediately after the news of the violation of the procedures was made public. A spokesman at the Washington office said the organization would send out alerts to its offices to discuss protests in front of Russian missions.

Another group, the American Physical Society (APS), which has significant clout in Washington, was especially concerned with the impact of the Supreme Court on the development of Russia’s legal system. APS’ Irving Lerch said in a written note that “any pretense of the rule of law has evaporated and I think that we must all re-think our attitudes towards Russia.” APS and other scientific organizations within the American Association for the Advancement of Science are pondering what Lerch called a “coordinated response.”

Impact on politics

While U.S. politicians generally refrain from commenting on court decisions, if the Nikitin case ends in a continued political harassment and persecution, it is likely to become drawn into election politics. Vice President Al Gore has been the Administration’s point man on U.S.-Russian relations, where he headed the U.S.-Russian Joint Commission, initially known as Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission.

Gore is also known as a strong environmentalist, and one major issue the Joint Commission tried to resolve was cooperation in the area of nuclear weapons dismantlement and nuclear non-proliferation and safety. If newly elected President Putin decides to draw out the Nikitin persecution, which is closely linked to these issues, Gore’s Russia policy, and especially the question of U.S. financial assistance for nuclear safety in Russia, will be scrutinized further. The Republican Congress has been skeptical of aid to Russia in the past, and recent scandals associated with international aid to Russia have caused Republican criticism of the Administration’s, and particularly Gore’s, relationship with Russia’s leadership.

The end could be far off

The Supreme Court has already set a new date for the hearing, and Nikitin’s legal team is confident that on the merits, the Supreme Court should have a simple task in dismissing the appeal against the full and unequivocal acquittal by the St. Petersburg City Court.

But even under this best-case scenario, unlike in the United States, such a ruling is not necessarily the end. The ball would be back in Putin’s court. According to article 371 of the criminal procedure code, a ruling by the Supreme Court can be appealed to the Presidium of the Supreme Court by the General Prosecutor or his deputies within one year (!), keeping Nikitin in a continued legal limbo. On the other hand, if the Supreme Court finds in favor of the prosecution, the defense cannot appeal. So much for the legal principle of equality of arms in Russia’s legal system.

Nikitin has already filed an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights for Russia’s failure to determine the case within a reasonable delay. But with Russia already facing expulsion from the Council of Europe over the war in Chechnya, international legal remedies are losing their bite. While Putin has talked about Russia’s need to become a strong partner of the West with a trustworthy legal system, the Nikitin case is bound to become one more step in the direction of Russia’s isolation.

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