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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Are Court and Kremlin at Odds?

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There can be little doubt that the election of Valery Zorkin as chairman of the Constitutional Court on Friday -- with 10 votes to the incumbent Marat Baglai's nine -- was, at minimum, a mildly unpleasant surprise for the Kremlin.

Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper this weekend described the court as turning into a branch of the presidential administration under Baglai's six-year chairmanship.

This is perhaps a little harsh, but the court has certainly come in for increasing criticism in the past few years, being accused of loyally toeing the Kremlin line. In particular, it drew fire for a ruling in July that granted many incumbent regional leaders the right to run for a third and in some cases even a fourth term, despite a law limiting them to two terms.

President Vladimir Putin, for his part, did not shy away from revealing his sympathies for Baglai two years ago, when he pushed a bill through the State Duma abolishing the retirement age of 70 and lengthening judges' terms from 12 to 15 years. The bill was tailor-made to prolong the tenure of Baglai, then 69. And the new rules only applied to judges appointed after 1994, which included Baglai, appointed in February 1995, but not Zorkin and other court veterans.

Having gone to all this trouble to win Baglai's loyalty, it is hard to believe that Zorkin's election is part of some complicated intrigue orchestrated by the Kremlin. All the more so given Zorkin's history as first Constitutional Court chairman and the fast approaching national elections.

Is this move by the court an attempt to re-assert its independence?

It's too early to tell. Despite the position adopted by Zorkin vis-a-vis the Kremlin in 1993, there's no real reason to expect him to become an opponent of the Kremlin now. He has, after all, quietly served as a Constitutional Court judge ever since his run-in with Yeltsin. Moreover, each of the 19 judges' votes carries equal weight, so the chairman's influence over the court is limited and the actual composition of the court has changed little. Of the original 13 judges selected in 1991, nine remain. Of the other 10 current judges, four were appointed in 1994; one (Baglai) in 1995; and one each in 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2002.

While on the face of it, Zorkin's re-election looks like a snub to the Kremlin, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And we won't have to wait long for the court to undergo a test of some political sensitivity: In May the court is due to rule on the constitutionality of Kremlin-backed and Communist-opposed amendments to the law on referendums forbidding national referendums within a year of parliamentary or presidential elections.