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Russia Report: June 20, 2003

20 June 2003, Volume 3, Number 24
By Jeffrey Kahn

"A club is a primitive weapon; a rifle is a more efficient one; the most efficient is the court." So thought Nikolai Krylenko, Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin's first commissar of justice. A post-Soviet spin on that Bolshevik notion is at the heart of a case that Russia's Constitutional Court began hearing this week. The outcome of the case will affect the course of Russia's developing federal system.

The case was brought by the legislative branches of the governments of the ethnic republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan and by Tatarstan's Supreme Court (which, despite its name, is a federal court). At issue is whether a federal prosecutor can bring a case in one of Russia's lower-level federal courts alleging that a republic's constitution violates federal law and should therefore be declared inoperative.

Tatarstan and Bashkortostan contend that only Russia's highest court, the Constitutional Court, or republican constitutional courts (which are independent of the Constitutional Court) are entitled to hear such cases in the first instance, a position adopted by the Constitutional Court in a February 2001 decision.

That case and subsequent amendments to the federal constitutional law on the Constitutional Court, however, left enforcement of such Constitutional Court rulings to the lower federal courts. In Russia's multitiered judicial system, these courts do the heavy legal lifting in each constituent subject of the federation. They operate not only as trial-level courts of original jurisdiction but also as appellate courts with cassational and supervisory powers of considerable breadth.

The immediate source of the dispute is the ongoing work of Deputy Prosecutor-General for the Volga Federal District Aleksandr Zvyaginstev. In 2001, he persuaded the Tatar Supreme Court to declare numerous provisions of the Tatar Constitution to be in violation of federal law. In 2002, Tatarstan reluctantly followed other republics in redrafting its constitution, but with little noticeable improvement in terms of its conformity to federal constitutional law. Zvyaginstev returned to court and won again. Still more court filings in March 2003 led to the present appeal.

But the efforts of the untiring Zvyaginstev are just the latest chapter in an ongoing story. Tensions between federal and regional political elites have ebbed and flowed over the past decade, but they have never abated. Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, rose to power on a flood of republican declarations of sovereignty only to struggle for the remainder of his term against a tide of republican refusals to pay taxes, send conscripts, or even obey federal law -- with Tatarstan leading the way. The Constitutional Court's rulings against Tatarstan and other republics throughout the 1990s were treated with scorn, when they weren't ignored altogether.

President Vladimir Putin's "dictatorship of law" brought an end to the scores of backroom, extra-constitutional deals that Yeltsin signed to placate regional elites and to extract much-needed rubles from them. In 2000, Putin cracked down on the republics with sweeping federal reforms and a renewed, aggressive use of the courts to bring republics to account for their often-flagrant disregard of federal law. Putin demanded that republics redraft their constitutions -- many of which predated Russia's -- to comply with Article 4 of the federal constitution: "The Constitution of the Russian Federation and federal laws shall have supremacy throughout the entire territory of the Russian Federation."

Adherence to the federal constitution is hardly an outrageous demand. Such supremacy clauses are de rigueur in most federal compacts. The problem successful federations face is one of balance: how to promote the economic and political benefits that inhere in federal union -- and are facilitated by a unified legal system -- without destroying the diversity and local autonomy of its constituent parts.

Russia's federal officials have found that balance painfully hard to achieve in Russia's ethnic republics, where the twin Soviet legacies of centralization and Russification are far from forgotten. The constitutional provisions that divide powers are often vague and even contradictory. They thinly disguise a fundamental disagreement that persists between federal and regional politicians even 10 years after the constitution was ratified: In which direction does power flow? To most republican elites, Moscow is the great usurper and the federal courts a tool manipulated to that end. In Tatarstan, whose original constitution predates Russia's, legislators assert that their legislation is more progressive and attuned to the needs of its inhabitants than federal law. In Moscow, however, such arguments sound recalcitrant and defiant.

Putin and Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiev, who has led the republic since his days as chairman of its Supreme Soviet, have clashed across a spectrum of issues all centering on the nonconformity of republican to federal law. Elections for Tatar president have brought clashes with the federal Central Election Commission ("RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 11 October 2000), and a requirement that candidates to the Tatar presidency speak Tatar was rejected by a federal court ("RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2001).

More symbolic issues are no less important. Tatarstan and Bashkortostan fought over the issuance of Russian passports for years, ultimately winning special inserts in their respective national languages and crowned with their national symbols (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2001). At the same time, the Tatar snow leopard was replaced by the Russian double-headed eagle on the coat of arms at the Tatar Supreme Court, while its judges received new identity cards signed by Putin to replace those signed by the chairman of the Tatar State Council. These symbolic acts reasserted a crucial fact: Although it sits in Kazan, the Tatar Supreme Court is a federal court.

And here is where politics intersects with law. The question "who decides" is in part one of forum selection. Many in the republics are still unconvinced that federal courts will be as sympathetic to their concerns as their own republican constitutional courts, whose judges are appointed by regional elites. Since December 2001, regional authorities have been completely removed from the process of appointing judges to the federal bench, even those sitting in their own republics or regions.

There is no question that the Constitutional Court will continue to uphold the supremacy of federal law. The interesting question is in which courts it will permit challenges to be heard. If federal prosecutors have the power to directly challenge republican constitutions in the more accessible and numerous lower federal courts, Moscow gains the advantage. If only the federal Constitutional Court and the republican constitutional courts have jurisdiction to hear such cases, Putin loses some influence over a key instrument for reigning in wayward republics.

As the court proceeds with its hearings, intrigues and suspicions mount. Some suggest that the rivalry between Russia's Constitutional Court and its Supreme Court over their jealously guarded spheres of jurisdiction will be a factor. A reporter for "Rossiiskaya gazeta" suggests a sinister motive in the timing of the case: "In essence, [it was] called up [by Tatarstan and Bashkortostan] in anticipation of a post-electoral attack from the federal center."

It is no easy question to say how the federal balance should be struck. But one thing is certain. If Russia's federal courts acquire the reputation of efficient political weapons instead of neutral federal arbitrators, Russia and its struggling federal system will be the weaker for it.

Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, a political scientist and lawyer, is the author of "Federalism, Democratization, and the Rule of Law in Russia" (Oxford University Press, 2002).

Following his appointment as deputy prime minister in charge of housing reform, former St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev announced on 16 June that Deputy Governor Aleksandr Beglov will serve as acting governor of St. Petersburg until new elections can be held, Russian media reported. Central Election Commission (TsIK) Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov said on 17 June that the gubernatorial elections in St. Petersburg must be held between 20 October and early November. The website speculated on 16 June that presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District Valentina Matvienko has the best chance of being elected the city's next governor, since a new candidate would have to struggle to organize a campaign and build public support so quickly. Roman Mogilevskii, director of the Agency for Social Information, agreed with that conclusion, telling RFE/RL's St. Petersburg correspondent that Matvienko currently has the highest rating and in the few months remaining it would be difficult for anyone else to catch up. When announcing her candidacy for governor in St. Petersburg earlier in the month, Deputy Governor Anna Markova said that she hoped to "preserve the remains of democracy" in the city with her candidacy, adding that it is "no secret that an artificially importunate election campaign for one person [Matvienko]" has already been launched (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 June 2003). JAC

Commenting on Deputy Prime Minister Yakovlev's appointment, Lyudmila Narusova, the widow of the former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatolii Sobchak, predicted that Yakovlev "won't last long" in his new position and that the "appointment was made for the sole reason of liberating the city of St. Petersburg," Ekho Moskvy reported. "Two years ago Yakovlev proclaimed himself the pioneer of housing reform," Narusova, who is currently a representative for the Tuva Republic in the Federation Council, continued. "But city residents got nothing from this -- old apartment buildings that are not fit for living in, and the reform is a flop." Chavash Republic President Nikolai Fedorov also publicly disparaged the state of housing in St. Petersburg, saying at the State Council meeting on 16 June that the "people are living in dirt and squalor," TVS reported. "Vremya novostei" reported on 17 June that news of Yakovlev's new position was greeted without enthusiasm in the government. However, an unidentified high-level source in the White House told the newspaper that the "appointment was necessary to avoid anyone being led out in shackles -- so that there wouldn't be any kind of criminal [procedure before] the elections."

Audit Chamber Chairman Sergei Stepashin announced on 9 June that he is sending documents to the Prosecutor-General's Office concerning the possible misuse of funds earmarked for the celebration of St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary, Russian media reported. Last March, the chamber accused Governor Yakovlev of "systematically ignoring Audit Chamber decisions" and warned that if Yakovlev did not take any measures in response to the chamber's earlier findings, then in April it would "take legal steps against the St. Petersburg administration" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 April 2003). JAC

According to RFE/RL's Moscow bureau on 17 June, the most significant consequence of the departure of former St. Petersburg Governor Yakovlev to Moscow will likely be the redistribution of property that it will unleash. Allegedly pro-Yakovlev forces, such as BaltOneksimbank and the Tambov clan, will be removed from city finances, as former St. Petersburgers who had moved to Moscow will make their triumphant return to the city, the bureau commented. Also on 17 June, presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District Matvienko said a concept for transferring certain functions of the national capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg will be ready by the end of the year, RosBalt reported. JAC

Presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District Matvienko told reporters in Pskov that the upcoming 300th anniversary of Petrozavodsk and the 1,100th anniversary of Pskov will not be as grandiose as the recent jubilee in St. Petersburg, but that the federal government will pay no less attention to these events, reported on 11 June. She noted that the Culture Ministry has allocated more than 12 million rubles ($400,000) for the second All-Russia Festival of National Culture, which will take place in Petrozavodsk later this month as part of the celebrations there. At the same time, Matvienko also noted that preparations for the jubilee in St. Petersburg revealed a number of serious problems the city is facing, particularly regarding the state of its monuments, museums, and emergency housing. Earlier in the month, Matvienko said that almost 60 billion rubles ($1.98 billion) were spent on preparations for the city's tercentennial over the past three years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 June 2003). JAC

In an article in "Profil," No. 23, Andrei Ryabov of the Carnegie Moscow Center and Vladimir Zmeyuschenko argue that media reports about reducing the number of regions in the Russian Federation are not just a "smoke screen for the intrigues of regional leaders against their weaker neighbors," but signal the beginning of a real effort to "set up a compact and understandable system" for managing the federation. According to the authors, there are two main reasons for such a reform: to achieve a radical reduction in the state apparatus, and to make it easier for the federal center to control regional elections. However, the authors note that while there might be a real willingness on the part of certain federal officials to pursue such reform, there exist a number of obstacles to enlarging regions. For example, thinly populated regions in the north and Siberia with significant oil and gas reserves will oppose enlargement, and large corporations based in particular regions could resist such changes. JAC

Governors of the resource-rich regions of Siberia expressed their displeasure with the activities of the federal Natural Resources Ministry at a recent joint meeting of the interregional association Siberian Accord and the Siberian Federal District Council, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 16 June. Tomsk Governor Viktor Kress said the center is continuing to try to centralize control over natural resources. Irkutsk Governor Boris Govorin agreed, commenting: "If the second key is taken away from the regions, then [we have] no guarantee that our interests will be taken into account. Why did we invest money into a branch, the results of which will be used by others?" Summing up the session, Altai Republic head Mikhail Lapshin declared, "Today we sense [our] real remoteness from the place where final decisions are made." JAC

Presidential envoy to the Siberian Federal District Leonid Drachevskii has sent to the federal government a plan for the creation of a free economic zone in Novosibirsk that would ease Russia's entry into the high-technology market, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 16 June. Under Drachevskii's proposal, the federal budget and regional budgets would provide start-up capital for a Siberian Venture Fund, which would provide financing for projects in the information-technology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology fields. Commenting on the project, Federation Council representative from Leningrad Oblast Sergei Vasilev acknowledged the problem of financing technology projects, but said Drachevskii does not provide the solution. "The creation of an internal offshore zone under the guise of a special economic zone will be used by petty thieves to cheat the government, as has happened in our country every time under similar circumstances." According to the daily, the government informed Drachevskii that it has approved his initiative, but no special legal status -- such as a special economic zone -- or funding would be provided. JAC

Elections to the Vladivostok City Duma held on 8 June were declared valid, Russian media reported the next day. Supporters of former Vladivostok Mayor and State Duma Deputy Viktor Cherepkov won 14 of the body's 25 seats. Cherepkov told reporters in Vladivostok that he does not exclude the possibility of running in the city's next mayoral elections, scheduled to take place next spring, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 10 June. Meanwhile, reported on 30 May that personal relations between Cherepkov and Primorskii Krai Governor Sergei Darkin are strained. Commenting on Cherepkov's desire to run for mayor, Darkin said, "His return will disturb the political peace and quiet." Cherepkov's candidacy was nullified during krai gubernatorial elections in 2001 just days before the second round of voting. JAC

Aleksandr Bortnikov, deputy director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) directorate for St. Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast, was named the new director of that agency by presidential decree on 8 June, RosBalt reported. The previous director, Sergei Smirnov, is being transferred to the FSB's central apparatus in Moscow, where he will assume the post of deputy director. Bortnikov was previously in charge of counterterrorism operations. JAC

Meanwhile, "The Observer" reported on 8 June that the FSB thwarted a terrorist attack on St. Petersburg planned to take place during the recent jubilee celebrations. An unidentified Russian security official told the London-based weekly that a plot to drive trucks laden with explosives into the city had been planned by "Islamic fundamentalists." The source said that the perpetrators had been identified but were still at large. JAC

"Novaya gazeta," No. 41, reported that factory directors in Voronezh Oblast are experiencing sharp increases in the prices of materials despite the fact that federal economic authorities report that the overall inflation rate has been just 7 percent so far this year. A local cement-factory director told the weekly that metals prices have doubled in the past six months, while the cost of crushed stone has risen by 15 percent, and that of water by 43 percent. The prices of electricity and natural gas have risen so often that they have been difficult to track. As a result, cement factories in Voronezh Oblast told their customers in June that they are raising prices for cement by 64 percent, which is increasing construction costs. The price of a square meter of housing, in turn, has risen to a minimum of 500 rubles ($16), which the majority of Voronezh residents cannot afford. JAC

The following data points are excerpted from a recent report by Human Rights Ombudsman Oleg Mironov that sums up the state of human rights in Russia over the past five years. According to "Novaya gazeta," No. 42, the report opens with the statement, "Truth and freedom for human beings and citizens still do not have real value in the Russian Federation." JAC

Rank of Russia worldwide in terms of premeditated murders committed per 100,000 citizens: 2nd

Number of crimes annually that prosecutors discover that have been concealed by police: more than 100,000

Number of murder victims in Russia over the last 10 years: almost 300,000

Percentage of workers employed by enterprises and organizations occupied with hard or harmful labor: more than 40 percent

Number of workers injured in workplace accidents annually: more than 360,000

Number of workers killed in workplace accidents annually: around 8,000

Percentage of the population having incomes lower than the survival minimum: around one-third

Source: Report of Human Rights Ombudsman Oleg Mironov as quoted in "Pochemu podesheveli prava cheloveka," "Novaya gazeta," No. 42, 16 June 2003.

As was widely predicted, the no-confidence vote held by the Duma on 18 June failed to gather enough votes to dissolve the government of Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, Russian media reported. The vote was 172 in favor, with 163 opposed and six abstentions, reported. The motion needed 226 votes to pass. The motion was put forward and supported by the Communist and Yabloko factions. The Union of Rightist Forces faction did not participate in the vote, while the pro-presidential factions Unity and Fatherland-All Russia voted almost solidly in favor of the government, according to ITAR-TASS. The People's Deputy group was split, with nine voting for the government, four deputies abstaining, and 40 not voting. Fourteen members of the centrist Russian Regions group voted for the government to resign. JAC

In his speech to Duma deputies on 18 June, Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii said his faction supported the no-confidence motion "not because the government is guilty of something, but because it has done nothing to change the situation," and NTV reported. He criticized the government for not carrying out reforms in the financial sector, state administration, taxation, and the so-called natural monopolies. He said the government is staffed with "temporary people" who are sitting on their bank accounts just waiting to leave the country. "Can you imagine what they are putting in their coffers in the meantime," Yavlinskii asked. Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov told deputies that the no-confidence motion was necessary to "save the country from disaster," reported on 18 June. He charged that the country produces almost nothing domestically and that it exports natural resources worth $100 billion annually for which it receives only 2,000 rubles ($65) a month per capita -- about $10 billion per year. Zyuganov also emphasized the country's demographic crisis, saying that Russia has the lowest life expectancy in Europe and that the suicide rate has grown by 80 percent over the last decade. VY

Members of the Yabloko and Communists factions voted solidly against the government, Russian media reported. Russian Regions leader Oleg Morozov told that the measure would fail not because a Duma majority loves the government, but because there is simply no sense in dismissing the government just before new Duma and presidential elections. According to "Vremya novostei" on 19 June, more deputies voted against the government than had been expected, and that might have been because no one from the government bothered to show up for the vote. JAC

Duma deputies passed on 18 June in its third reading a bill restricting media coverage of elections, Russian media reported. The vote was 358 in favor and 41 against, RosBalt reported. Under the bill, a media outlet could have its license or registration annulled if found guilty of multiple violations of election rules. The legislation also imposes harsher penalties on non-media entities that violate election rules. For example, a person found guilty of falsifying election results could receive up to four years in prison, according to JAC

Also on 18 June, deputies passed in its third reading a bill to distribute more than 35 billion rubles ($1.1 billion) in additional federal-budget income, ITAR-TASS reported. Three billion rubles was earmarked for financing counterterrorism activities, and 10 billion was assigned to regional budgets to pay for increased wages for public-sector workers. More than 14 billion rubles will be used to compensate citizens who lost property as a result of the fighting in Chechnya. The vote was 309 in favor, with 20 against and one abstention, according to RosBalt. JAC

Deputies on 18 June also approved in its third and final reading a bill establishing the right of citizens to choose to pay for local telephone service either by a flat fee or on a per-minute basis, RosBalt reported. The bill also introduces a new understanding of "universal service" with regard to the location of public payphones and the provision of public access to the Internet. Each population point should have at a least one public payphone and one Internet-access point. The expenditures of companies providing "universal service" will be compensated from the federal budget. Legislators also approved in its second and third readings a bill on judges' qualifications, which stipulates that they be Russian citizens and at least 35 years of age, RosBalt reported. They must have higher legal education and may not hold any other official government responsibilities. The bill gathered 370 votes in favor. JAC


Name of law_______________Date approved___________# of reading

On the introduction of changes_____18 June_______________3rd
and amendments to several legislative
acts in connection with the adoption
of the federal law on basic guarantees of
election rights and the right to participate
in referendums

On dividing additional____________18 June_______________3rd
income for the federal budget

On the organs of judges'__________18 June_____________2nd, 3rd

On connections_________________18 June_______________3rd

TRANSFERRED: President Putin on 16 June confirmed that St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev has been appointed deputy prime minister responsible for housing and communal-services reform, Interfax and other Russian media reported. Putin said that such reforms are proceeding well in St. Petersburg and that is why he offered Yakovlev the post.

OUT: Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov has promoted Andrei Sharonov from deputy economic development and trade minister to first deputy economic development and trade minister, ITAR-TASS reported on 16 June. Sharonov is replacing Elvira Nabiullina, who is leaving the ministry. According to "Vedomosti" and "Vremya novostei" on 9 June, Nabiullina will rejoin the Strategic Development Center (TsSR), where she will develop an economic program for President Putin's re-election campaign.

OUT: Volgograd Mayor Yurii Chekhov has tendered his resignation, ITAR-TASS reported on 17 June. According to, Chekhov's second term was due to expire in October. Chekhov said he needed to resign early in order to devote himself to party matters for Unified Russia and the State Duma campaign.

IN: Farit Mukhametshin has been appointed Russia's ambassador to Uzbekistan, ITAR-TASS reported on 18 June. Mukhametshin is the former chairman of Tatarstan's legislature.

19-20 June: Prime Minister Kasyanov will chair the Consultative Council on Foreign Investment

19-20 June: National Strategy Council will meet in Saratov

20 June: President Putin will hold a press conference for domestic and foreign correspondents at the Kremlin

20 June: State Duma will consider whether to confirm Human Rights Ombudsman Mironov for an additional term or elect a replacement, RosBalt reported on 17 June

20 June: Economic Development and Trade Ministry will send the government a list of state functions that should be eliminated, "Kommersant-Vlast" reported on 16 June

20 June: Presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District Valentina Matvienko will address St. Petersburg's legislature

21 June: State Duma will hold its last plenary session of the spring session

23 June: Date by which TVS will stop operating, according to Editor in Chief Yevgenii Kiselev, if shareholders do not work out a plan for financing

26 June: Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov will meet with lawyers of leading Russian media outlets

25 June: Federation Council will consider legislation restricting media coverage of elections

27 June: Gazprom will hold annual shareholders meeting

28 June: 3,500 delegates will attend a Unified Russia party forum called "Together with the President" in Moscow, "Vedomosti" reported on 3 June

28 June: Latest date by which National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov must be released on parole

28 June: Second All-Russia Festival of National Culture will be held in Petrozavodsk

July: Month by which a working group of European and Russian legislators wants to create a "road map" for implementation of the joint Russian-EU accord on Kaliningrad of 11 November 2002, ITAR-TASS reported on 3 March

1 July: Date by which the new State Committee on Drug Trafficking will be created and new Federal Service for Economic and Tax Crimes will be formed, according to the committee's head, Viktor Cherkesov, on 8 April and ITAR-TASS on 10 April

1 July: The trial of scientist Vladimir Shchurov, accused of divulging state secrets, will resume in Primorskii Krai

1 July: United Arab Emirates national airline will begin regular flights from Moscow's Domodedovo Airport

7 July: The working group on Russia's accession to the WTO will meet in Geneva to discuss a draft of its final report

13-16 July: Great Britain's Prince Charles will visit Russia

14 July: Deadline set by President Putin for Russian regions to bring their laws into compliance with federal regulations

14 July: Federal law on basic guarantees of electoral rights will come into effect requiring 50 percent of regional legislatures to be elected from party lists

15 July: Government will consider draft bill on mineral resources, Prime-TASS reported on 28 May

15 July: Deadline for new company, Russian Railways, to be registered

1 August: Deadline for Russian peacekeeping troops to withdraw from Kosova

12 August: Third anniversary of the sinking of the "Kursk" submarine

13 August: Air-traffic controllers will hold a national protest

15 August: Date by which Duma should approve new map of single-mandate districts; if it fails to do so, the Central Election Commission will have the right to confirm the map

17 August: Karachaevo-Cherkessia will hold presidential elections

Late August: Campaign officially begins for State Duma elections

September: Second Russian-U.S. Commercial Energy Summit will take place in Moscow

September: Gennadii Seleznev's Party for Russia's Revival will hold a congress in Moscow

1 September: Date by which government commission will have drafted 2004 budget

7 September: Novgorod and Omsk oblasts will hold gubernatorial elections

14 September: Sverdlovsk Oblast Governor Eduard Rossel's second term officially expires

23 September: The first European-Pacific Ocean Conference will take place in Vladivostok devoted to improving dialogue among intellectuals in European countries and the Pacific region, reported on 6 March

30 September-2 October: The Second All-Russian Sociological Congress will take place at Moscow State University

1 October: 33 percent salary hike for budget-sector workers to go into effect

6 October: British court to consider Russia's request to extradite Boris Berezovskii

October: President Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will meet in Yekaterinburg, Novyi region reported on 14 April

23-26 October: First anniversary of the Moscow-theater hostage crisis

25-26 October: Russian Forum on the development of civil society will be held in Nizhnii Novgorod

29 October: 85th anniversary of the founding of the Komsomol

7 December: State Duma elections will be held.