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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Court Backs Putin's Right to Pick Governors

Itar-TassProkhorov, left, Grishkevich and Nadezhdin in the courtroom on Wednesday.
The Constitutional Court on Wednesday backed the Kremlin in a challenge of the federal law that gives President Vladimir Putin the right to effectively appoint governors.

But the court refused to rule on complaints that the law violated the Constitution by allowing the president to disband regional legislatures and dismiss governors.

It acknowledged that Wednesday's ruling contradicted a ruling it made in 1996 that found it unconstitutional for the Altai region legislature to appoint a governor.

Vladimir Grishkevich, one of two plaintiffs in the case, said the court had come under enormous pressure to uphold the Putin-initiated law. The other plaintiff, the liberal Union of Right Forces party, or SPS, vowed to press on with the challenge in the court.

At issue is the law that scrapped gubernatorial elections from the start of this year in favor of presidential nominations. Putin selects candidates and sends their names to regional legislatures for confirmation. The law allows the president to disband a legislature that rejects candidacies more than once.

Grishkevich, a Tyumen geologist and former SPS member, appealed to the Constitutional Court in February, after Putin appointed incumbent Tyumen Governor Sergei Sobyanin to a new term. Sobyanin has since been promoted to presidential chief of staff. SPS joined the lawsuit later.

The Constitutional Court ruled that the introduction of presidential nominations and legislative confirmations did not violate the constitutional principle of federalism because the final word stayed with regional legislatures.

The changes also did not impinge on citizens' constitutional rights to "participate in the bodies of government and elect and be elected to the bodies of government" because "legislatures are plenipotentiary representatives of the people," the court said in its ruling.

The court noted that the Constitution did not prescribe popular elections as the only way to organize all levels of government and did not specify which posts had to be filled by elected officials.

Thus, the president selects the prime minister and sends the nomination to the State Duma for confirmation, the ruling said. It also pointed out that regional authorities appointed senators to the Federation Council.

The court acknowledged that the ruling contradicted the 1996 Altai decision but argued that the interpretation of the Constitution could change over time, depending on legal and social conditions.

A panel of 17 judges considered the lawsuit, and Chief Justice Valery Zorkin read the ruling. Two judges offered dissenting views, Zorkin said outside the courtroom. One of them, Anatoly Kononov, told reporters that it was unconstitutional to take away rights already enjoyed by the people.

Grishkevich and lawyer Vadim Prokhorov, who represented the plaintiffs, said the court had faced pressure to decide in favor of the Kremlin. They noted that Putin had met with many of the judges on Dec. 9 and thanked them for helping build a strong state.

Grishkevich said he found it suspicious that the State Duma had decided on Tuesday, a day before the ruling, that it would consider a plan to relocate the Constitutional Court to St. Petersburg. A move would likely disrupt the court's work for years.

Duma Deputy Alexei Mitrofanov, a member of the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, told state-controlled Radio Mayak on Wednesday morning, before the ruling, that he also believed the relocation issue had been raised to put pressure on the judges.

The court said it could not rule on the constitutionality of the president's right to disband legislatures and fire governors because of a law that prohibits an individual or political party from suing without a complaint from a victim -- in this case a fired lawmaker or governor.

Senior SPS official Boris Nadezhdin said his party was preparing a new case and would back a complaint from a governor. "We have such a person in store. Expect surprises," he told reporters.

Only one governor has been publicly fired: Koryak Governor Vladimir Loginov was sacked in March over a heating crisis. No legislature has been disbanded.

Nadezhdin said the new case would be filed in February or March.

SPS is also asking regional legislatures to challenge the legality of the president's right to fire governors and disband legislatures before the Constitutional Court, Nadezhdin said. He said legislatures could sue without a complaint from a victim.

Most legislatures are dominated by pro-Kremlin United Russia.

The Yaroslavl legislature announced in the fall that it would challenge the law in the Constitutional Court. But it backed down a week later after the region's governor said such a measure could harm relations with the Kremlin.

Vladimir Lysenko, a political scientist who testified as an expert in the Constitutional Court, said Wednesday's ruling meant that the court was no longer "the last independent court in Russia."