Two Constitutional Court judges are stepping down from senior positions after giving interviews that denounced mounting pressure on the country’s judicial system.
Judge Anatoly Kononov will resign from the Constitutional Court at the end of this month, while judge Vladimir Yaroslavtsev has handed in his resignation as a member of the country’s Council of Judges, court spokeswoman Yekaterina Sidorenko said Wednesday.
She stressed that Yaroslavtsev would remain at his job in the Constitutional Court.
Valentin Kovalyov, a lawyer who served as justice minister under President Boris Yeltsin, said both resignations were unprecedented.
“I know both of them personally as highly professional and principled. The fact that they made this difficult decision means that they saw no possibility to do their job right,” he told The Moscow Times.
The move comes after the judges publicly accused the Kremlin of crushing the independence of the country’s judiciary.
Yaroslavtsev told the Spanish newspaper El Pais in an interview published Aug. 31 that judges were increasingly subjected to pressure from the executive branch of government and the security services were running the country like in Soviet times.
“I feel like I have ended up on the ruins of justice,” he was quoted as saying.
As an example of the security services’ sweeping powers, Yaroslavtsev mentioned a Constitutional Court decision in May to dismiss a complaint from journalist Natalya Morar, who was barred by the Federal Security Service from entering the country after she published critical reports in the New Times magazine.
Her case was dismissed without any request for evidence from the FSB, Yaroslavtsev said.
“Nobody knows what [the FSB] will decide tomorrow. There is no consultation or discussion,” he was quoted as saying.
The interview infuriated fellow judges at the Constitutional Court, which has a total of 19 judges, and they accused him of breaching the ethical code for judges and a federal law on judges at its first plenary session after the summer recess in October.
Yet instead of issuing a formal warning that could lead to his impeachment, the judges decided to ask him to resign from his post as the Constitutional Court’s representative in the Council of Judges, a body that oversees judges’ discipline throughout the country.
Yaroslavtsev has confirmed that he complied with the recommendation but declined further comment.
Kononov later defended Yaroslavtsev in an interview with the Sobesednik magazine, saying he had been “whipped in the best tradition” at the plenary session. Kononov told his fellow judges in the Constitutional Court that the magazine had improperly published off-the-record quotes, but the judges insisted that he step down to avoid a disciplinary hearing, Kommersant reported Wednesday. “The interview was the last straw. … Kononov had always behaved more like a human rights campaigner than a judge,” one judge told the newspaper on condition of anonymity.
Constitutional Court chief justice Valery Zorkin said Wednesday that Kononov had cited health reasons in his resignation letter. But Zorkin noted that judges had complained about Kononov’s public criticism in the past, and he suggested that they had disapproved of the tone of Kononov’s numerous dissenting opinions.
“It is not true that judges are ousted because of a dissenting opinion,” Zorkin told reporters. “But it is one thing if he argues over whether something is constitutional and another if he only serves the purpose of saying that Auntie Manya speaking about the Constitution on the street is a fool.”
Both Yaroslavtsev and Kononov were unavailable for comment Wednesday. Kremlin spokespeople were also unavailable for immediate comment.
Political analysts have speculated that control of the Constitutional Court is part of a Kremlin plan to help Prime Minister Vladimir Putin return to the presidency if elections are called earlier than 2012, when President Dmitry Medvedev’s term expires. Critics have lambasted a Medvedev-backed reform that replaces the current system in which the court’s judges elect the chief justice and his two deputies with a system in which the president nominates the trio and doubles their terms to six years, from the current three. The court’s 16 other judges serve until they are 70. Kononov, who is 62, was appointed in 1991 and his term would have ended in 2017.
In his Oct. 27 interview with Sobesednik, Kononov called Medvedev’s reform “undemocratic and disrespectful.”
The Constitutional Court played a key role in the political turmoil of the early 1990s, declaring illegal a coup attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 and striking down laws put forward by President Boris Yeltsin. It has not made a major ruling against the Kremlin in recent years.
Alexandra Odynova contributed to this report.