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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NEWS ANALYSIS: Is Presidential Immunity Decree Legal?




The legality and implications of the first decree signed by acting President Vladimir Putin - an order to give Boris Yeltsin and his family immunity from any future legal prosecution or investigation - remain unclear.


On Dec. 31, then-President Yeltsin signed decree No. 1761 transferring the powers of the Russian presidency to Putin. The next decree, No. 1762, was signed by Putin and declared that the acting president accepted the presidential responsibilities.


The very next decree was titled "guarantees to a President of the Russian Federation having relinquished his duties, and to the members of his family."


The document guarantees Yeltsin a pension equal to 75 percent of his presidential salary. What this means in dollar terms is unclear: Although his official monthly salary was just 10,000 rubles (roughly $2,000), his declared 1998 income was 183,837 rubles (roughly $23,500, calculated according to pre- and post-crisis exchange rates). According to the Kremlin, the latter figure was the sum of his salary and interest accumulated in the Sberbank account where his salary was deposited.


The decree also protects the president from any future searches, arrest or prosecution, and stresses that he cannot be questioned. The immunity from searches extends to his home, office, luggage, paperwork, telephone and car.


Yury Skuratov, who was ousted from his office as prosecutor general last spring when his investigations moved uncomfortably close to the Kremlin, called decree No. 1763 "illegal."


"To extend immunity to a retired president is absolutely unconstitutional and illegal. Any appeal to the Constitutional Court should lead to the declaration of this decree as unconstitutional.


"Putin is still connected to corrupt officials," Skuratov said. "They still occupy their Kremlin offices."


Under Russian law, those immune from prosecution include the sitting president and the members of both houses of parliament.


"It will take constitutional amendments, or at least federal law, to change that. Some time ago, mocking [Mikhail] Gorbachev, Yeltsin asked him, 'And why would you, Mikhail Sergeyevich, need immunity?' Now it is the West's turn to ask, 'What did Yeltsin do that he needs such a decree on immunity?'"


The biggest legal questions spring from the part of the decree that extends immunity to family members traveling or living with the former president.


"Basically, members of Yeltsin's family and his closest circle also receive certain guarantees," Skuratov said.


There is already talk among new State Duma members about opening a parliamentary discussion of the decree. Indeed, the decree foresees that it will someday be superseded by a federal law.


Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, said the Communists may have an interest in discussing the decree as they may want to be seen by voters as still harrying Yeltsin - and so, still in opposition to "the criminal regime," as they called it.


Even so, with the influence Putin now holds over the Duma, enshrining the immunity spelled out in decree No. 1763 in a federal law would probably not be terribly difficult.


"But the question is, does Putin really need it?" said Boris Kagarlitsky, a political analyst. "Is it good PR to start pushing for such a law before the presidential elections? And after the elections, why would he need to be bothered with it?"