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Cablegate: Constitutional Court Chief Justice Zorkin: Independent

R 020800Z SEP 09


E.O. 12958: N/A

Sensitive but Unclassified. Not for Internet Distribution.

1. (SBU) Summary. In a cordial and surprisingly open
conversation with Ambassador and Consul General August 27,
Valery Zorkin, Chairman of the Russian Constitutional Court,
underscored the importance of strengthening judicial
independence and the rule of law in Russia, welcomed the
possibility of judicial cooperation with the U.S., seemed
resigned to the new system for selecting the Court's Chairman,
and mused on the Constitutional Court's "exile" to St.
Petersburg. End Summary.

2. (SBU) Zorkin pointed with some pride to the progress achieved
since 1991 in establishing the Constitutional Court and
strengthening its independence, noting that the fact that Russia
has a functioning Constitutional Court only 19 years after the
fall of Communism is an achievement in itself. He cited
then-President Yeltsin's actions in 1993 as the sole instance of
executive interference in the Constitutional Court's work since
its inception. He quickly added that more remains to be done to
increase judicial independence throughout Russia's court system,
but felt the country was moving in the right direction toward
greater respect for rule of law.

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3. (SBU) To that end, Zorkin welcomed cooperation with American
counterparts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, to help develop
the Russian court system. He said that his court already works
closely with several international organizations and that he is
a member of the Conference of European Constitutional Courts, a
forum he considers useful for exchanging opinions and ideas.
The Russian Constitutional Court has a department dedicated to
studying the practices of other, mostly European, court systems
to help inform how the Russian court operates and increase its
efficiency. The Russian Constitutional Court also organizes
international conferences on the rule of law and works with the
U.S. Bar Association. Internships in the U.S. for Russian
judges would be particularly useful and welcome, he added, to
provide exposure to and develop knowledge of the U.S. system of
jurisprudence. Ambassador Beyrle cited the many years of U.S.
support for Russian efforts to strengthen the judiciary,
including USAID and DOJ programs. He briefly described the new
U.S.-Russia Foundation and its goals; Zorkin reacted favorably,
especially when told that former Ambassador Collins, whom he
said he holds in high regard, co-chaired the USRF Board. Zorkin
welcomed Ambassador Beyrle's offer to consult with USAID and
USRF and follow up with a letter detailing specific programs
that might be helpful to the Constitutional Court.

4. (SBU) Zorkin said that the Constitutional Court receives
about 18,000 complaints per year, and the number of complaints
is growing. His court accepts and rules on 300-350 cases
involving Constitutional issues. He noted that the number of
Russian complaints to the European Court of Justice also has
grown, with Russian cases constituting 28,000 of the total
100,000 cases received in Strasbourg. He welcomes criticism, he
said, and willingly admitted that his court sometimes makes
mistakes, but added that not a single decision of his Court has
been appealed to Strasbourg. Zorkin said that the Russian
constitution is based on international norms, and that in many
rulings his Court applies not only accepted international
standards but also the legal precedents that have already been
set in other countries. Social issues constitute a majority of
the cases the Russian Constitutional Court reviews. Those
issues put the Court in a difficult position, as it must balance
the limits of what the government can do against the ideal of
social justice. Zorkin says his Court often rules in favor of
the people against the government, which makes for some
animosity between his Court and the Ministry of Finance. But,
Zorkin said with a smile, his Court's budget is protected and
the Ministry of Finance cannot reduce it.

5. (SBU) Speaking more broadly, Zorkin said he did not know how
the Russian legal system would develop, as the fight against
separatism and corruption could lead either to the strengthening
of the rule of law or towards general lawlessness. Trailing off
at the end of his thought, he speculated that roughly 15% of the
Russian population has "conservative" views, another 15% - 20%
solidly have "democratic" views, and the remainder is somewhere
in-between. Zorkin believes the future of the Russian court
system depends on many factors, including international

6. (SBU) In responding to the Ambassador's question, Zorkin put
the best face possible on the new process of selecting the
Chairman of the Constitutional Court. No longer will the
justices choose the Chairman from among their number. Zorkin
said that the new system, under which the Federation Council
must approve the President's nominee, would encourage a greater
separation of power. Zorkin said that the new process will be
collaborative, since the nomination will be subject to review by
the Federation Council. He pointed out how the Federation
Council has the authority, and exercised it under Yeltsin, to
reject nominees recommended by the President. What is
ultimately important, he concluded, is the spirit of the court,
not the specific procedures by which it is constituted.

7. (SBU) On the Court's move from Moscow to St. Petersburg
(note: which he initially opposed publicly), Zorkin commented
that the move should not be seen as "exile" from the country's
center of power. He emphasized that the move had been President
Putin's personal initiative, and that initially the plan called
for all three of the highest courts in Russia (the
Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court and the Arbitration
Court) to move to St. Petersburg. He said that the move of the
other two courts had been postponed due to the global economic
crisis, and if the crisis had begun earlier, the Constitutional
Court would likely still be in Moscow as well. He noted that
many of his fellow justices on the Constitutional Court were
very unhappy with the move, but largely had adjusted to their
new city and setting (note: the Constitutional Court occupies,
with the Yeltsin Library, the 19th century neoclassical Senate
and Synod building).

8. (SBU) Nonetheless, Zorkin said he was pleased to be in St.
Petersburg and felt that separation from the hurly-burly of
Moscow provided a quieter atmosphere, which facilitated the
court's deliberations. As part of the move to St. Petersburg,
the Court also had moved its records and work into the
electronic age. Zorkin proudly explained that this step had
made the Constitutional Court the most transparent of all
Russian courts and greatly reduced its paperwork. Zorkin said
that the continuing relevance of his court is illustrated by the
fact that several key government agencies and bodies have sent
representatives who sit as observers during the Court's
sessions. Already, there are representatives of the President's
office, the Federation Council, and the Prime Minister's office.
The Prosecutor General and the Human Rights Ombudsman also want
to have representatives included in the near future.
Separately, a Court staffer explained that the general public
can request admittance to the Court's sessions. The staffer
also explained that journalists can monitor the proceedings from
a closed-circuit video system in the ante rooms, although
journalists are not admitted to the Court's chambers during

9. (SBU) Comment: Zorkin was surprisingly candid in his
assessment of the progress made and continuing shortcomings of
the Russian judicial system. His interest in increasing
judicial cooperation with the U.S. and with his counterparts was
clearly genuine. The Ambassador will follow up with a letter as
described in para 3 after consulting with USAID, DOJ and the
USRF. End comment.


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