All Appeals Lead to Strasbourg? Unpacking the Impact of the European Court of Human Rights on Russia

By Trochev, Alexei | Demokratizatsiya, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

All Appeals Lead to Strasbourg? Unpacking the Impact of the European Court of Human Rights on Russia


Trochev, Alexei, Demokratizatsiya


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The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), a judicial arm of the Council of Europe based in Strasbourg, France, is the most popular court in Russia today.1 In this article, I explore how ordinary people, government officials, and judges in Russia interact with this supranational human rights tribunal. Since March 30, 1998, Russia has recognized both the compulsory jurisdiction of this transnational court and the right of individuals to sue Russia in this court for violations of the 1950 European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.2 What violations did Russia commit in the past decade, as identified by the ECtHR? How does the process of transmitting the meaning of ECtHR judgments to Russian authorities work? How do Russia's courts respond to ECtHR interpretations of the 1950 convention and why? Do Russian judges read and draw on these decisions, or do they ignore or defy the decisions of the ECtHR? By addressing these questions, we can attempt to probe the dynamics of how law works or fails to work on the ground, as well as whether and how transnational legal institutions make a difference in societies in which "political officials and judges fail to uphold even the most basic principles of rule of law."3

The observance of international human rights standards in nondemocracies like Russia is poor. However, this does not mean that we should not study what government officials and judges in nondemocratic regimes are actually doing when they face criticism coming from international legal institutions. What responses, if any, do key domestic actors have to the criticism of international institutions? Does this criticism makes a difference in their behavior? Human rights activists tend to portray Russia's responses as noncompliance, somewhere between outright defiance and quiet ignorance.4 Many Russian government officials reply that this defiance is justified. They argue that the European community uses the ECtHR as a baton to monitor the implementation of the European Convention of Human Rights in Russia.5 To them, every loss in the Strasbourg court is a political scandal, be it the embarrassment over nonpayment of the meager 500-ruble child-care subsidy to mothers in the Voronezh Region or the major cover-up of large-scale human rights violations in Chechnya. Most ECtHR judgments undermine the key claim made by Vladimir Putin: that his regime brought law, order, and prosperity to Russia. The intensity of this political scandal will only escalate in the near future, largely because the ECtHR will hear more and more politically salient cases, including ones that involve torture and disappearances in Chechnya, YUKOSrelated cases, and the large-scale deportations of Georgian citizens, among others. Russia's human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, and his colleagues scolded Russian officials for developing a "paranoia that the only wish of the rest of the world is to bite, destroy Russia."6 Not surprisingly, some of these officials began suggesting that only "public enemies" and "whiners-plunderers of the federal budget" go to the Strasbourg court, a tribunal that is seen either as plotting against Russia or as a biased, slow, ineffective court.7

The Kremlin today has made it a priority to stem the flow of potential complaints to the ECtHR and to do something about the complaints that have already been received by the court. Indeed, this priority appears to be the key rationale for the Russian Parliament's failure during Vladimir Putin's presidency to ratify the fourteenth protocol to the 1950 convention, a reform that would speed up the handling of cases by the Strasbourg court and result in more judgments against Russia.8 Putin's successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, is worried about the impact of this transnational litigation. He appears to realize that never-ending losses in the Strasbourg court may "undermine the legitimacy of the national position in the eyes of domestic constituents," something that he cannot afford in a time of deepening economic crisis. …

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