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Putin's Legal Vertical: Kremlin Seeks To Consolidate Court System

  • Tom Balmforth

A court bailiff awaits a trial in a Moscow court. (file photo)

A court bailiff awaits a trial in a Moscow court. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- Russia's Supreme Arbitration Court is widely viewed as the country's most impartial court. But it might not be for much longer.

The Kremlin this week submitted legislation to the State Duma that would essentially abolish the body, which resolves economic disputes, by merging it with the Supreme Court.

The move would create a single "super court" comprising 170 judges to arbitrate criminal, civil, administrative, and economic cases. The authorities argue that the proposed change would reduce inconsistencies in court rulings, but critics allege it is really an effort by the Kremlin to further centralize a judicial system that is already widely viewed as beholden to the president.

"The centralization of the courts began 15 years ago. What is happening now is a continuation of these attempts to bring the courts under the control of the bureaucratic system," Vadim Klyuvgant, a Moscow-based defense attorney, says. "A lot has already been done to achieve this goal. I think this is a continuation of that process, but far from the beginning."

The proposed changes would also give President Vladimir Putin the authority to directly appoint prosecutors in the regions, a power currently held by the prosecutor-general.

Since the changes would entail amending the Russian Constitution, they would require a two-thirds majority in the State Duma and a three-fourths majority in the Federation Council to become law.

Top legislators -- including Aleksandr Zhukov, the Duma's first deputy speaker, and Pavel Krasheninnikov, who heads the lower house's legislative committee -- say lawmakers will begin debating the legislation in the coming months.

Putin first proposed the changes at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in June, pointing to inconsistency in the two courts' rulings. "People take a dispute before courts of general jurisdiction and then the side that is unsatisfied with the ruling appeals with the same question to the arbitration system and receives the opposite ruling," Putin said at the time.

'At The Very Least, Unwise'

The Supreme Arbitration Court (VAS), which is chaired by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's law-school classmate Anton Ivanov, has long been viewed by legal experts as the most impartial part of Russia's judicial system. And legal experts are questioning the wisdom of abolishing it.

"I haven't heard of one legal benefit of this so-called reform," Klyuvgant says. "I also am very alarmed and doubt that there will be any benefit to this. If the Supreme Court will have 170 judges, then how will it function? How will they assemble and discuss cases? How this is going to be a functioning body?"

Lyudmila Novoselova, head of Russia's Intellectual Property Rights Court, says merging the VAS and the Supreme Court would be "at the very least, unwise" and would "reduce the quality of the administration of justice." Likewise, Genri Reznik, one of Russia's most prominent defense attorneys, says, "I don't see the slightest reason to unite the Supreme Court and VAS."

Analysts also sense a whiff of political intrigue behind the changes. The daily "Vedomosti" speculates that the proposed changes could be an effort to weaken Medvedev by undercutting his friend and ally, Arbitration Court head Ivanov.

And the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" writes that by creating a new "super" Supreme Court, Putin might be creating a soft landing spot for Medvedev, should he eventually be fired as premier. "It's a pity that the Kremlin couldn't come up with a less expensive way of replacing the prime minister," the daily wrote.

"It's dubious that this integration [of the courts is] beneficial for administering the law," Vladimir Pribylovsky, a Moscow-based political analyst, says. "There is no logic behind this [from a legal point of view]. What is happening here is some kind of intrigue."
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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at