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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Court Must Focus on the Constitution

Throughout the conflict in Chechnya, Sergei Kovalyov has been a brave and determined defender of human rights, a term that has come to seem almost absurdly weak in the face of the suffering he has witnessed there.

And on Thursday he continued his crusade in the Constitutional Court, lashing out at the Kremlin, not for whatever bureaucratically incorrect decrees it may have issued to justify intervention, but for the suffering that President Boris Yeltsin and his aides knew must follow from their decision.

His clarity of vision and fury over the waste of life and potential that has been caused in Chechnya is irresistible. For whatever the president's lawyers may say about the Dudayev regime having been illegal and rapacious -- and it was both -- most Russians know in their hearts, as Americans did in the case of Vietnam, that this war is wrong.

Well, on this occasion, it is Kovalyov who is wrong. In fact, he will probably turn out to have been a fine witness in the Kremlin's defense.

In the few days that the hearings have been underway, the discussion -- especially on the part of the Kremlin's chief representative Sergei Shakhrai -- has been about the decision to intervene. Was it, or was it not the right decision? Shakhrai argues -- and there is plenty of argument to make -- that it was.

Kovalyov has taken the bait. He made a case, at least as convincing, that the decision to send tens of thousands of troops into Chechnya was morally wrong. This allowed Shakhrai to respond with his own view and suddenly it becomes clear that the court is out of its depth. How can a bunch of judges decide what is the right policy for Russia, or whether it was really necessary for the president to resort to force?

The court case seems already to be sadly off the rails, careening away from the essential question, which is this: Did Yeltsin have the constitutional right to order army troops into war on Russian territory? Regardless of what Kovalyov may say, this is the important issue to resolve, and the answer will determine whether this brutal method for dealing with a troublesome ethnic minority can be used again.

One's suspicion about the court, with its unwieldy 19-judge format, is that it will seize on any chance it gets to avoid a clear confrontation with the Kremlin or any suggestion that it is dabbling in politics -- something that caused its predecessor to lose public respect and ultimately to be shut down.

So far, all sides in the Chechnya case are ensuring that the judges will have their excuse, while the vital questions remain unanswered.