The Status Quo Man


The Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament, has reappointed Valery Zorkin as the Chairman of the Constitutional Court. The decision was marvellously unanimous: no one opposed it and only one senator abstained. There is nothing surprising here. The Russian political elite wants stability and Valery Zorkin is the last man to do anything foolish. He sees his job as protecting status quo.

Valery Zorkin was the court’s first chairman when it was formed in 1991.

In 1992-1993, during the conflict between President Boris Yeltsin and Parliament, then called the Supreme Council, Valery Zorkin and the Constitutional Court took a pro-parliament stand. When Yeltsin announced the dissolution of the Supreme Council, the Constitutional Court stood up to the President and overruled the decree.

Indeed, article 121 of the Constitution stated that ‘The powers of the President of the Russian Federation cannot be used to change the national and state organization of the Russian Federation, to dissolve or to interfere with the functioning of any elected organs of state power. In such an event, the President’s powers cease immediately’.

Alas, nobody listened. The clash between the executive and the legislative branches ended up with tanks shooting in the parliament building, street fighting and hundreds of people dead or wounded.

Zorkin resigned as the chairman (however, he remained a member of the court). In 1994 the new Parliament passed a new law on the Constitutional Court. Russia’s highest judicial body, created to keep an eye on the President and the government, lost the right to take cases on its own initiative. From now on it could not speak unless it was asked.

In 1995, no longer the chairman, Valery Zorkin dissented over the court's ruling that the president's decision to move Russian troops into Chechnya was legitimate.

In 2003, he became the head of the Constitutional Court again but now he seemed to have become a different person.

In 2009, he led a campaign against his peers, judges of the Constitutional Court, Vladimir Yaroslavtsev and Anatoly Kononov. Though Valery Zorkin often speaks his mind on various issues of law and politics - his articles regularly appear in the government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta - he does not like it when his colleagues do the same.

In an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais Justice Vladimir Yaroslavtsev said that during Putin's presidency, the courts have 'turned into an instrument of the executive branch', legislature is 'paralyzed', and 'the security agencies do whatever they like, and there is nothing courts can do but endorse their decisions’. ‘I feel,’ he said, ‘as if I am standing on the ruins of justice’.

In a closed plenum the judges accused Yaroslavtsev of breach of ethics and law, which do not permit ‘anything that can diminish the authority of the courts’, ‘questioning decisions that came into force' or 'criticizing professionalism of colleagues’. Justice Kononov disagreed. ‘Yaroslavtsev,’ he said in an interview, provocatively titled “There Are No Independent Judges in Russia”, ‘was whipped in the best tradition’.

Valery Zorkin actively supported the campaign. He accused Yaroslavtsev and Kononov of slander. In his view they were part of a PR campaign against Russia. Vladimir Yaroslavtsev had to step down from the Council of Judges; Anatoly Kononov left the Constitutional Court altogether.

In January 2012, Valery Zorkin accused the protesters of serving the foreign policy interests. ‘Today's creative opposition does not even notice how far they have moved from the ideals of democracy and the rule of law, which allegedly are so valuable to them and one after the other they put forward radically anti-democratic and unlawful demands', he wrote. 'Are the leaders of the protest movement ready to see their own country completely devoid of legitimacy and hence of national sovereignty? Are they prepared to call for 'Vikings' (including the NATO Special Forces) to set up in Russia a new state modelled on Libya?'

In 2010 the law on the Constitutional Court was changed. Now the chairman is appointed by the Federation Council from candidates chosen by the President. Previously, judges elected their own chairman. The law also removed the age limit and Valery Zorkin can now be the country’s main lawyer for the rest of his life.



Valery Zorkin is Reappointed as the Russia’s First Judge