The Zorkin’s Limits


 

In April 1992, just before the parliamentary elections, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, an organisation with about 50,000 members, distributed 1.5 million leaflets throughout Britain. In those leaflets the candidates' affinities were explained in an uncompromising way stating who is for and who is against using human embryos in drug-testing trials.

Phyllis Bowman, the head of the organisation, was charged with an offence under the UK Representation of the People Act which prohibited spending more than five pounds by an unauthorised person on giving away information about candidates. Mrs Bowman, who at the time was almost 70, appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. ‘There is something slightly ridiculous,’ frowned Judge Nicolas Valticos, ‘in seeking to give the British Government lessons in how to hold elections and run a democracy.’ Yet his colleagues did not follow suit and, in 1998, ruled against Britain.

Last week Valery Zorkin, the head of the Constitutional Court, became one of the most powerful men in Russia. Amendments to the Federal Law ‘On the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation’ proposed by President Medvedev and adopted by parliament removed the age limit for the chairman and made it virtually impossible to dismiss him against his will.

The Constitutional Court is a powerful institution which can strike down any law, presidential decree or act of government, and Mr Zorkin will stay in charge unless the president, the Council of the Federation (the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament) and the judges - all decide that he is unfit for the job.

We have some idea of how he will do his job and where he will lead the country. On October 29, Mr Zorkin published an article called ‘The Limits of Acquiescence’, a curious mixture of an anti-globalization manifesto, the bitterness of an injured ego and a warning to the judges in Strasburg to back off.

He starts from a somewhat bungling analysis of the global economic crisis and concludes that international organisations, first of all the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, failed to prevent it. Then, he suddenly moves to the recent case of Konstantin Markin v. Russia where the European Court of Human Rights not only ruled against Russia but questioned the rightness of an earlier decision of the Constitutional Court in this matter.

Valery Zorkin thinks that his job is to keep the status quo
 

Konstantin Markin is a military serviceman from Novgorod who divorced his wife and took on the responsibility of bringing up their three children, including a new-born baby. He applied for three years’ parental leave which was refused because it can only be granted to women. When the Constitutional Court considered the case it said that granting leave of that length of time to male soldiers would weaken the army, while there are far fewer servicewomen who can therefore be allowed some privileges. In Strasbourg judges disagreed – for them it was a simple matter of discrimination - and ruled for Markin.

For Zorkin the problem is not just that the ECHR decided differently but that it overstepped the mark in trying to teach Russians how they should live. Local authorities, he says, know better than an international judge what people need because they understand the ‘cultural, moral and religious code’ of the nation.

And here Valery Zorkin moves to his main point. Recently the ECHR admitted the case of the political opposition, several parties and activists, who claim that they lost the elections of 2003 because state media unequally distributed information about the candidates. Their even partial victory in Strasbourg, the judge writes fretfully, may be used ‘for destabilising Russian society under the scenarios of orange, tulip or other constructed “revolutions”’.

It is very sad that the man, who will be leading the highest judicial body in the foreseeable future, perceives a difference in opinion as a conspiracy. It is even sadder that he seemingly believes that the ‘cultural, moral and religious code’ of Russian people can be spelled out in the words of Ivan the Terrible who liked to contrast the autocratic nature of Russian society with the contractual basis of the West: ‘The rulers of Russia,’ he wrote in the 16th century, ‘have not been accountable to anyone.’

It is depressing that Valery Zorkin thinks that his job is to keep the status quo and not move the country forward where, according to the Constitution, it should be.

 

November 8, 2010
text: S. Matyunin
picture: patrimonio designs - Fotolia.com

This article first appeared in The Moscow Times

 

 

What the Constitutional Court is for
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