Dmitry Gudkov: Russia gets isolated from international law

Today, on the 1st of December, Russia’s State Duma passed a law on the priority of the Constitutional Court’s decisions over those made by international institutions, particularly by the European Court of Human Rights (EHCR), at its first reading.

Therefore, the 4th part of the 15th article of the Russian Federation’s Constitution which stipulates: “Generally recognized principles and norms of international law and the Russian Federation’s international agreements are an integral part of its legal system. If other rules are set with the Russian Federation’s international agreement in addition to those prescribed by law, the rules of the international agreement would apply” is disputed.

There is no doubt that after the first reading, the law will be accepted in the second and the third one very soon. It’s enough to look at the voting results: only three deputies voted against the document, one of whom, Ilya Ponomarev, is currently in forced exile. 434 parliamentarians voted in favor.

Why does the Kremlin need this law, and what risks does it present for the current Russian legal system which, on a monthly basis, is being damaged by new legislative strikes?

Most likely, the catalyst for the creation of this document was the Russian state’s defeat in the Yukos case at the Hague. Then the Kremlin had seemingly taken all three branches of power- including the judiciary- under its control, it turned out to be impossible to influence the international courts. And if the decision about Yukos came too late to be changed (even though Russia is not planning to pay the debts yet), then a decision was made to prevent possible similar cases in the future this way.

It’s important to remember that a year ago the Duma tried to pass the so-called Rotenberg law, according to which Russian entrepreneurs (mainly those close to Kremlin), affected by sanctions, would get compensation from the budget. However, this law was thrown out because of its odiousness.

Of course, the current bill will not only harm Russia’s international reputation.

First of all, it will impact on Russian citizens whose legal actions make up the bulk of the requests to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). As from now on, only the Constitutional Court will decide whether ECHR’s decision is acceptable to the government, or if it is not in agreement with sovereign legislation. And amid the crisis, growing budget deficit and diminishing government resources, more and more of ECHR’s decisions are at risk of becoming “unsuitable” for Russia.

Here it is important to keep in mind the character of Valeriy Zorkin, the head of the Constitutional Court, who has extremely conservative, almost outrageous views. According to him, serfdom, which is akin to slavery, is characterized as one of Russia’s spiritual ties. This is the same person who said that there’s a lack of military severity in Russian legislation, and human rights should be de-prioritized in favor of the “main priority”– security.

There is therefore no doubt that the ECHR’s decisions, as well as other international decisions, won’t find a warm welcome in the Constitutional Court.

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But as well as the negative impact on citizens’ fates, the law will also affect the government in general. Together with the chaotic and unpredictable politics of the Russian administration, it will foster further mistrust among investors and increase the flow of capital out of Russia, as no businessman will be safe from an unfair dispute resolution with the government, which will be supported by the legislative and administrative structures.

Deputies of different factions gave various arguments in support of the law as it was in the process of being accepted. Putin’s party, United Russia, insisted on the fact that the document is in accordance with European practice, and outline historical precedents when European countries had not followed international courts’ decisions. However, there was no clear response to my argument that this only happened in cases where ECHR was strengthening human rights.

To be precise, there was a clearer reply from the representative of Just Russia party, who outlined the Duma’s motivations. In general, it has come to the point where Russia is no longer going to be “Europe’s maid”, Russia has to go its own way and get rid of “external management»: in a nutshell, there was nothing about human rights anymore. The concept of “sovereign democracy”, which refers to an autocracy where the regime wields power that is not controlled by society in any way, was once again brought up in the Duma, and any concession to citizens was also a concession to the West- a show of weakness, as a “real” citizen and patriot should always agree with the government.

This logic is distorted, but nowadays the Russian state machine is functioning according to it. This exact point of view is promoted as the only correct view, reviving the saying “Whoever is not with us is against us”. Unanimous voting in the Duma once again proves this attitude to be alive and well in Russia.

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