Russia's Constitution Is Bulwark for Freedom

By Karash, Yuri | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 17, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Russia's Constitution Is Bulwark for Freedom

Karash, Yuri, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

Valery Zorkin, 53, is the judge of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation and was its first chairman from 1991 to 1993. During the constitutional crisis in 1993, he opposed the disbanding and shelling of parliament, believing this kind of unconstitutional act would significantly hamper the transition of Russia into a legal society. He advocated a peaceful solution of the conflict between President Boris Yeltsin and the parliament, including early elections of both the president and the parliament. He responded to questions in writing submitted by special correspondent Yuri Karash.

Question: What is the Constitutional Court and what role does it play in the Russian system?"

Answer: This is the supreme judiciary of Russia. It defends the constitution, civil and citizen rights and makes sure that constitutional rules and norms are observed at all levels of the Russian state and society. It decides whether laws adopted by the federal and regional governments, decrees issued by the president, correspond with the constitution.

The court also acts as a referee in disputes between different state bodies and interprets the constitution. Sometimes it plays the same role as the U.S. Supreme Court. It happens when the Constitutional Court investigates violations of the constitutional rights of Russian citizens.

Q: Did a body similar to the Constitutional Court exist during the Soviet period?

A: Neither the Constitutional Court nor a constitutional trial could have existed under the Soviet system. The supreme totalitarian power could not have allowed any legal control over its orders or decrees. The Constitutional Court is an attribute of the democratic state based on the rule of law and separation of power. The Constitutional Court is needed when the society is really governed by the constitution. This is why this kind of body was created in a new Russia only after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Q: Was the Russian Constitution adopted legitimately?

A: The Russian Constitution was adopted in a referendum in December 1993. However, its legitimacy has been questioned.

At the time of the referendum, the Russian people were still recuperating from the shock caused by the October 1993 tragedy, when the Russian parliament was shelled. Second, the constitution was adopted only by a slight majority of the voters. Third, there were regions in Russia which voted against the constitution. Fourth, it was claimed that the results of the referendum were false.

However, the results of the referendum were not questioned officially, which created the slim possibility for a national reconciliation and accord based on the constitution. [President Boris] Yeltsin's [election] victory made the constitution as legitimate as possible under the present political, economic and social situation in Russia.

Q: Is the Russian Constitution democratic or authoritarian?

A: You cannot characterize the present Russian Constitution by contrasting "authoritarianism" with "democracy." The constitution envisages principles of democracy and the rule of law, separation of power and federalism. It guarantees human and citizen rights and a priority of norms and principles of international law.

On the other hand, parliament, according to the constitution, has less political influence than, for example, the U.S. Congress. The Russian president can appoint members of the government without parliament's consent. Overall, the constitution emphasizes presidential and executive power.

The president can issue decrees which automatically become laws. This feature of the Russian political and state system can play a special role when parliament has not adopted laws regulating critical relationships in society, such as the economic one. This is why Russian reforms are realized predominantly through the so-called "promotional" presidential decrees.

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Russia's Constitution Is Bulwark for Freedom


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