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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Court Back in Zorkin's Hands

Itar-TassValery Zorkin
A controversial former chief judge of the Constitutional Court, who quit in 1993 after unsuccessfully opposing President Boris Yeltsin in his violent stand-off with rebellious lawmakers, was elected to the post once again on Friday.

In a surprising decision, 10 of the court's 19 judges cast their ballots for Valery Zorkin, who served as the court's first chairman for nearly two years after its creation in October 1991 and has remained a judge on the court ever since. Zorkin, 60, replaces Marat Baglai, whose second three-year term had come to an end, forcing the vote. Baglai got the nine other votes.

The mild-mannered but fiery-eyed Zorkin, whose professional qualities won praise from across the political spectrum, took the decision in stride, saying it came as something of a surprise.

"I hope this isn't perceived as the advent of a person who fought for this job. This happened by chance," Zorkin told the Kommersant newspaper. "The Constitutional Court is a truly collective body with 19 equal judges."

Nearly a decade ago, Zorkin stepped down from his post as court chairman on Oct. 6, 1993 -- two days after troops loyal to Yeltsin opened fire on the parliament building where the president's armed opponents had been holed up for several days -- saying he could not stay on "under the current circumstances."

In the months leading up to the bloody stand-off, as the conflict between Yeltsin and conservative lawmakers escalated, Zorkin had tried repeatedly to mediate between the president and parliament, headed at the time by Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov.

As attempts at reconciliation failed, Yeltsin issued his infamous decree No. 1400, disbanding the Supreme Soviet and calling for new parliamentary elections. On Sept. 21, 1993, the Constitutional Court, with Zorkin presiding, declared the decree unconstitutional and said it gave legal grounds for stripping Yeltsin of his powers.

The ruling immediately became a battle cry for Yeltsin's foes, including Khasbulatov and Vice President Alexander Rutskoi.

Two weeks later, with more than 100 dead, the president prevailed.

Zorkin's first stint as court chairman came at a time when Russia was trying to redefine itself -- a time when legal and political changes were intimately intertwined -- and his critics, including Yeltsin, scorned him for getting too involved in politics.

Before he became court chairman, during the coup d'etat against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, Zorkin joined a group of legal experts in condemning the revolt as unconstitutional. More than a year later, in November 1992, the Constitutional Court stymied Yeltsin's attempts to disband local Communist Party cells and to confiscate the party's property.

Now, Zorkin says, the court is resolute about keeping its nose out of politics, as it has since 1994.

"This will be the court's unwavering line. Nobody should bother hoping that we can be pulled to the left or the right or to the political center. We are in the legal center," Zorkin said in an interview with Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

"History never repeats itself," he told Kommersant. "Sound-minded people must learn their lessons from those events [of 1993]. If they don't, they should quietly leave the scene and write memoirs. I don't intend to write any memoirs; I'm a working judge."

Legal experts and politicians of all stripes welcomed Zorkin's appointment.

"I personally hope that under its new chairman the Constitutional Court will be more independent," State Duma Deputy Vladimir Lukin of the liberal Yabloko party told Interfax. "[These hopes] significantly outweigh any fears that Mr. Zorkin will display the overly strong political prejudices that he showed in the early 1990s."

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov praised Zorkin as "honest, courageous and a man of dignity."

"The choice is perfectly understandable. No one doubts his professional qualities," Sergei Vitsin, who authored some of the first post-perestroika legal reforms under Yeltsin and now serves as deputy chairman of the presidential advisory council on improving the court system, said in phone interview Friday.

Zorkin said there may be some small changes to the court's work, but there would be no revolutions.

Asked whether he believed changes should be made to the Constitution, Zorkin replied: "If you don't learn to live by one Constitution, you will never learn. Although, perhaps, there are certain things in our Constitution that need greater balancing, but that is an issue of political expediency."

While most observers saw Zorkin's election as a "natural rotation," especially considering that Baglai had managed to ruffle plenty of feathers in the judicial community, Kommersant interpreted the appointment as a signal that the court wants to free itself from Kremlin pressure.

"Over the course of Marat Baglai's chairmanship the Constitutional Court did not make a single decision unsuitable for the Kremlin," the paper said Saturday. "By electing Valery Zorkin the judges have shown that they want greater independence from the Kremlin ... and the presidential administration will have to take that into account."

One test of that thesis could come as early as this spring, the paper said, when the court is due to consider a Communist challenge to a recently passed law banning nationwide referendums in the year preceding parliamentary or presidential elections.