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Analysis: Russian Pensioner Has Her Day In European Court

By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The landmark case of a Russian pensioner who took her grievances over a pension shortfall all the way to the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg has empowered elderly Russians and younger activists trying to hold the Putin government to account on social welfare. The Strasbourg court's ruling in favor of Novosibirsk pensioner Lidiya Pravednaya could compel the Russian government to pay compensation to thousands of pensioners across the country, REN-TV reported on 26 January.

Yet unless more diplomatic efforts are mounted, stonewalling on the implementation on this and other European Court of Human Rights decisions could nullify the efforts of lawyers to use international mechanisms to overcome obstacles in the dysfunctional Russian justice system, lawyers say.

Pravednaya convinced the court that in the late 1990s the Pension Fund improperly shorted her pension, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 25 January. It was the first case of a Russian pensioner being able to obtain a pension with the help of the European Court, "Kommersant-Daily" wrote. Pravednaya's case has been watched closely by thousands of pensioners facing both declining real pensions and poorly compensated cuts in in-kind benefits. Her court struggle had further symbolic meaning for Russians because her last name "Pravednaya" literally means "righteous" or "pious" in the Russian language.

The case hinged on a 1 February 1998 law providing for the increase of state pensions using a formula based on the citizen's salary at the time of retirement and on the average salary throughout the country, using a ratio of 0.75. Pravednaya discovered, however, that pensions were being calculated at a maximum rate of just 0.50, and that she was being cheated out of about 200-250 rubles ($7-$8) a month, reported on 27 January.

The move triggered thousands of lawsuits against the Pension Fund, and local courts, in fact, took the side of the pensioners. Already in 1998, the Zayeltsov Raion Court of Novosibirsk ruled in Pravednaya's favor, instructing the local office of the Pension Fund to pay her the lost pension amounts. However, bureaucrats stalled and in 1999, the Labor Ministry issued an internal instruction to use the figure of 0.525 in calculating pensions. The Supreme Court then ruled that district courts had to review all the court decisions already made in favor of pensioners, the kind of heavy-handed action that illustrates the pressure of the executive on the judicial branch in Russia. Courts began to overturn their own decisions on pension lawsuits one by one, citing "newly discovered circumstances." Not only did the courts then affirm the Labor Ministry new formula, which contradicted the law, they began to go after pensioners for purportedly "overpaid" pensions.
While some Russian officials believe appeals to international courts are a sign of progress, since Soviet-era dissidents were often punished for such appeals, in fact persistent Russian reliance on justice meted out by foreigners is a sign of the deep dysfunction of the Russian courts.

Pravednaya filed her Strasbourg suit in April 2001 with the help of attorney Igor Novikov. The case hinged on the notion of "retroactive force," i.e., under generally accepted universal notions of the rule of law, a court cannot review a case already decided and apply a penalty from laws introduced after the original case was heard.

The European Court will now hand its decision in Pravednaya v. Russia to the Russian government, but it remains to be seen if it will be enforced. Pravednaya vows to follow up with another suit in the European Court for Human Rights seeking moral and material damages.

The European court has received an estimated 16,000 complaints from Russian citizens seeking justice, reported on 24 January. Russia leads the 50 members of the Council of Europe in the number of complaints filed against its government with the court. Like other international institutions, the court has been inundated with such requests due to the intense belief of Russians that justice can only be found outside their own court system. Yet only a fraction of cases submitted clear all the requirements to reach review, and still fewer reach the decision stage, to say nothing of enforcement.

While some Russian officials believe appeals to international courts are a sign of progress, since Soviet-era dissidents were often punished for such appeals, in fact persistent Russian reliance on justice meted out by foreigners is a sign of the deep dysfunction of the Russian courts. Although the concept of retroactive force is fairly widespread and established even in Russia, it appears no higher Russian court could grapple with it and face the political fallout of millions of angry pensioners.

But there is a limit to how much justice even an international venue can provide for Russian citizens. In Pravednaya's case, the court ruled that the Russian government must pay her the amount shorted from her pension from 1998-2000. However, three months after the court's ruling, the authorities evidently have still not responded or compensated Pravednaya's loss.

The Russian government is stalling, wrote on 2 February, clearly fearing the precedent of such cases and the huge demand for compensation. The European Court is due to hear another case involving Russian pensioners who were allegedly denied a hardship bonus for living in the Far North. The court also expects a huge influx of cases regarding recent changes in the social-benefits laws that replace most in-kind benefits with cash compensation payments.

The 68-year-old Pravednaya is a retired chemical engineer who worked for 40 years at a Novosibirsk factory, 22 as shop foreman. The cut in her pension cost her approximately 25,000 rubles, reported. "There was a sense of futility that no one understood you, no one listened, and the courts ignore pensioners," Pravednaya told the website.

Attorney Novikov told that such cases are not easily accepted by the court. "We had thoroughly to prepare all the papers, exhaustively cite our arguments, refer to precedents, look at similar cases reviewed by the European Court, and had to pull up all the cases of the court," Novikov said. The court does not become involved in establishing the amounts of member states' pensions, but it ruled on the legal matter of retroactive force and found that the Russian courts had deprived Pravednaya of a fair trial, based on international human rights law. The court demonstrated that the citing of "new circumstances" referenced by local courts was unlawful.

"We had a long road but we proved we were right," Pravednaya told However, contacted the Novosibirsk Pension Fund office and found that officials still had not paid Pravednaya. "We are waiting instructions from Moscow," an official of the Novosibirsk Pension Fund office told the site. Meanwhile, the Russian authorities have made no formal acknowledgement of the European Court's ruling.

A handful of court victories have been enough to inspire still more Russian citizens to turn to the European Court. One successful case was that of Anatolii Plaksin, a resident of Pyatigorsk who attempted to sue the Stravropol Tobacco Company for compensation of damages caused by a fire in his apartment that was found to have been started by a company employee. He was awarded 2,400 euros ($3,089). Anatolii Burdov, a member of a Chernobyl clean-up crew whose health has suffered as a result of that experience, was able to demonstrate that he has not been lawfully compensated and was awarded 3,000 euros. A librarian from Belgorod, Anna Ryabykh, won a lawsuit against the state-owned Sberbank for having lost her savings of 11,674 rubles, and she was awarded $27,300.

Lidiya Tumasova, a pensioner from St. Petersburg, was able to get the court to agree to review her case involving disputed common space in her apartment building to determine if she could continue to use the building's attic to dry her laundry.

Human rights activists say European institutions have little leverage to compel the Russian authorities to implement their decisions. "These problems are resolved through diplomatic means," lawyer Pavel Astakhov told "The Council of Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly will be regularly noting the failure to implement the court's decisions, and in an extreme case could threaten expulsion from the Council of Europe."