Zorkin interview

The Commentariat has been so busy discussing Medvedev’s achievements after one year in office that it’s very likely to have missed an interview with Constitutional Court chairman Valery Zorkin. Yet, this Kommersant interview may tell us as much about Medvedev’s achievements and strategy than the words of the president himself.

It may sound as a paradox to many of you, but Russia's ruling elite is well aware it needs a competitive political system and independent courts to stand the test of time. The question is how to achieve these objectives. We often confuse the lack of political will with the inability to change society from inside Kremlin walls.

Putin may have tried too hard to achieve these goals, assigning his presidential administration with tasks that should have been left to other branches of power and other political or civil entities. Medvedev seems to have chosen a different management strategy, a strategy of empowerment.

Medvedev's interview with Novaya Gazeta was univocally welcomed as a signal that the president values opposition media. He did not tell them what or how to write, he indicated the rest of the country that the newspapers and its journalists have the right to live and work freely.

Medvedev did not have someone buy the paper to guarantee its freedom from another person or group, as Putin has done for others. He seems to have a more delicate understanding of the complementary functions the different institutions of state and society have. For the moment that is. When other actors are not capable of sufficient initiative, alike his predecessor Medvedev may come to believe he is the only man that can get this country in motion.

On the 7th May the Constitutional Court chairman stepped up to the plate, giving his president the best one year inauguration present there could be. After having carefully laid out the functions and mandate of the Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin put forward a proposal to enhance that function.

Referring to the recent changes to the length of the parliamentary and presidential terms, approved by the legislative branch, he agreed that these amendments did not contradict the essence of the constitution, but that it had been prudent, had the Constitutional Court had the legal right to verify these amendments to the Constitution.

He then called upon any state organ with the power to initiate a draft law – and foremost the president himself – to adopt new legislation giving the Constitutional Court the duty to verify amendments to the constitution with the spirit of the constitution. Such legislation would insure the president and the lawmakers against the adoption of destructive constitutional norms, Zorkin argues.

Effectively, Zorkin aims to boost the function of the court as a referee between various political institutions as well as state and society. There are many ways how his proposal could turn out a paper tiger, yet the importance of this interview is that Zorkin has understood this is the time to take responsibility for the development of the judiciary and stepped up the plate.

For those of you who understand Russian, the interview in Kommersant is a good read. A lot more subjects are touched upon. The journalist was well prepared and had found a breach in Zorkin's diplomatic language. In a recent lecture Zorkin had said he approved of 'elements of authoritarianism' in the government of the country. What did he mean by did? Did the presidential and executive powers need such 'ideological support,' the interviewer asked.

In sober but constructive fashion Zorkin describes Russia location within its transition process. Contemporary Russia has certain elements of authoritarianism, he says, but these are the practical implementations in the transition from an unjust past to a new democracy. Zorkin offers various historical references, which we have heard before when describing today's Russia; Konrad Adenhauer, Charles de Gaulle, Franklin Roosevelt, as well as George W Bush.

Because of the accusations brought forward from the West, we (Russians) fear the mentioning of the term authoritarianism like the devil, he notes. Referring to the Moliere play character monsieur Jourdain, who suddenly finds out he has been speaking in prose all his life, Zorkin seems to suggest that the focus on the negative refrains Russian citizens from recognizing what they have ( in terms of democracy). I agree and add that this counts for many foreign commentators.
Finally, I would like to mention Valerii Zorkin's refusal to answer a question related to Khodorkovsky second case, explaining his case might end up at the Constitutional Court. This seems a viable scenario and much better for Russia than a telephone call from Good Tsar Medvedev to a local court or the prosecutor to abandon prosecution.

I must say that I remain somewhat puzzled by continuous calls in western media upon president Medvedev to interfere in Khodorkovsky’s second court case. The former Yukos president’s trials may have taken twisted turns, but that does not justify a breach of the separation of powers.

Russia’s transition is all about responsibility and initiative. This president seems to have chosen a strategy of empowerment. I’d would be wise not only to watch him, but also to monitor the space he leaves for others.