On September 13, 2000 the Presidium of the Russian Supreme Court will hear the General Prosecutor’s appeal against the acquittal of Aleksandr Nikitin. However, it is not only the future of Mr. Nikitin that is at stake, but also the future of the Russian legal system.
The quotation “heading” this commentary is taken from the congratulations that the then chairman of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union, A. F. Gorkhin sent to the chairman of the KGB, Yuri Andropov, in connection with the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Secret Police. Mr. Gorkhin continued his congratulations with expressing his happiness with the fact the “the State Security agencies and the Courts solve all their complicated tasks in a spirit of mutual understanding and sound professional relations”. Thus, he could hardly have given a clearer testimony of the intimacy that characterised the relations between the KGB and the Courts in those days.
However, the times have changed. After the St. Petersburg City Court’s acquittal of Nikitin on December 29, 1999, presiding judge, Sergei Golets, commented the verdict in the following way (Philadelphia Inquirer, January 10, 2000):
“The court drew attention to the fact that the KGB must now abide by the law, and pay attention not only to their own interests, . Because the court is guided by reasons of law, not reasons of KGB ‘necessity’ although we have a new president and although Putin was head of the FSB… the verdict will stand. And lawyers throughout the world will be able to see whether Russia is a state based on the law, or whether the law is just a smoke screen to hide any arbitrariness.”
On April 17, 2000 the Court Collegium of Criminal Cases of the Russian Supreme Court confirmed the acquittal. It also confirmed that Russian Courts have reached a high level of independence. However, the Prosecutor General’s appeal advocates a legal opinion which shows that the Russian Procuracy wants a return to the days when the courts and the state security agencies walked the common road of identical tasks and mutual understanding.
The appeal is nothing but a fierce attack on the independence of Russian Courts. It has, however, also given the Presidium a unique change to say the last farewell to the Russian Jurisprudence of the past and send it to the scrap heap of history. All the Presidium has to do, is to stand firm against this attack. If not, the positive development of the Russian Legal system throughout the last decade may turn out to have been for nothing.