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Russia: Constitutional Court Chairman Displays Legal Resolve

  • John Helmer

Moscow, 21 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The chairman of Russia's Constitutional Court, Marat Baglai, called his first press conference in almost a year to dismiss the constitutional claims of Prime Minister-designate Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko and the president's representative at the court, Sergei Shakhrai.

Although not widely noticed, the action by the court chairman is unprecedented. Court officials tell RFE/RL this was Court Chairman Baglai's first press conference this year. No comparable rebuke to ranking government officials has been issued since Valery Zorkin, the first chairman of the Constitutional Court, publicly told President Boris Yeltsin his order disbanding the Supreme Soviet in 1993 was illegal.

Baglai, who is the third chairman in the court's six-year history, dismissed Kiriyenko's claim that, during Yeltsin's weekend visit to Japan, he (Kiriyenko) would take over presidential duties. According to Baglai last Thursday, "an unconfirmed chairman of the government cannot, of course, carry out the duties of the president." Kremlin aides subsequently claimed Yeltsin would not delegate any of his powers while traveling.

Baglai's repudiation of Shakhrai was even more sweeping. The day before, Shakhrai had called his own press conference to claim that if the Duma votes Kiriyenko down three times and is dissolved, the new election might be postponed until September 27 or October 11. In the six-month interval, Shakhrai hinted, Yeltsin might rule by decree as he had done in 1993.

"It would be inhuman," Shakhrai announced, "to fix the date of the elections in July, since in summer the people must have an opportunity to forget about politics." Shakhrai also claimed that the new Duma elections might be conducted according to majority-vote rules that have yet to be enacted, but, which might be ordered by a Yeltsin decree.

Baglai reacted strongly. He made clear that the Constitution's article (Art.109.2), mandating an election within three months of dissolution, cannot be violated by the Kremlin. He rejected Shakhrai's election postponement, and warned the Kremlin against threats to impose new vote-counting rules by a Yeltsin decree. "A presidential decree abrogating the law is impossible in our country," Baglai said.

Shakhrai, a lawyer by profession, is the last surviving office-holder among Yeltsin's advisors who, in December 1991, helped him break up the Soviet Union, along with the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine. He is also the last of Yeltsin's advisors from the disbanding of the 1993 Supreme Soviet to remain on the Kremlin staff.

According to Shakhrai himself, only half his time is spent on Constitutional Court and legal matters. The other half, he said recently, is spent on political advice to Yeltsin. When asked how often he speaks or meets Yeltsin, Shakhrai replied: "Every day."

Shakhrai's tactics last week contrast with his reticence a few days earlier, to answer a question about the legality of a third presidential term for Yeltsin. Shakhrai's aide, Svetlana Popova, tells RFE/RL Shakhrai did not feel he had a right to express an opinion "before the decision of the Constitutional Court."

Suggesting behind-the-scenes pressure on Constitutional Court judges to rule Yeltsin's way on a third term, Baglai said "there is no constitutional legal crisis in the country."

Recently, after the Court ruled that the president had no legal right to refuse to sign legislation on returning wartime art trophies -- after parliament overrode his veto -- Yeltsin referred to the ruling as "a slap in the face."

John Helmer is a Moscow-based journalist, who routinely contributes to RFE/RL.