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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin Ally Chosen as Court Chairman

The judges of the Constitutional Court on Thursday chose as their new chairman a staunch ally of President Boris Yeltsin, who immediately distanced himself from proposals for rapid constitutional change.


Marat Baglai, the new chairman, is the most recent appointment to the court, the last of six new justices nominated by Yeltsin and approved by parliament who joined the court in February 1995. Baglai replaces retiring justice Vladimir Tumanov.


Elected on a 12-7 vote, Baglai immediately entered a debate on constitutional reform that has been triggered by Yeltsin's illness. Baglai said he is not in favor of making hasty, politically motivated revisions to Russia's basic law.


While Yegor Stroyev, chairman of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of parliament, recently said "the constitution is not an icon," Baglai told RIA Novosti on Thursday that, "An icon may be touched up if it loses color, but it should not be thrown out."


Yeltsin's illness has accentuated concerns that Russia's constitution places too much power in the hands of its elected president. Yeltsin himself has floated the idea of "evolving" the basic law, prompting some observers to speculate the Kremlin is devising a plan to name a favorable successor to the president should Yeltsin not serve out his full term. Such talk, Baglai said, is "pure politics."


Baglai, who is in his mid-60s, later told a Moscow radio station he was hesitant at first to vie for the chairmanship because the job seemed too big for him.


"For a long time I refused my colleagues' advice to take this job. I was too lazy; I did not want to take on such a huge responsibility," Baglai told Ekho Moskvy radio. "But once you agree, you have to take this job seriously. It's time to stop fooling around."


The Constitutional Court was set up in 1991 to fulfill a similar role to that of similar courts in the West. But it was suspended by Yeltsin in October 1993 after the court's chairman, Valery Zorkin, openly backed Ruslan Khasbulatov and Alexander Rutskoi in the parliament's power struggle with Yeltsin.


After the passage of a new constitution in Dec. 1993 and a 16-month hiatus, the body reconvened, but Yeltsin expanded the court from 13 members to 19, naming his supporters as counterweights to the sitting judges.


Zorkin, who as one of the original 13 members, serves on the court for life and is still a justice today. He was not enthusiastic about Baglai's promotion.


"I hope there will be no dictatorial rule," Zorkin said. "But the post of chairman is not particularly important. The court is run by committee."