15 April 2020
Leonid Nikitinsky, columnist for Novaya Gazeta, member of the Presidential Council for Human Rights, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group’s Human Rights Award
An announcement about a vacancy for the position of chair of the Moscow City Court has appeared on the website of the Higher Qualification Collegium of Judges. Theoretically, anyone who wants to (and meets the necessary requirements) can declare their intention to apply for the position, until the closing date of 15 May. The interesting question so far is whether Olga Egorova herself will apply.
Egorova’s tenure as chair of Moscow City Court has been almost as long as Putin’s as president. It was thanks to his decision that she was approved for the post in December 2000, before which time she had occupied it on an acting basis.
This was done against the recommendation of the Supreme Court – its president Vyacheslav Lebedev envisaged someone else in her place, and subsequently their conflict became systemic. This is known not just to every judge in the country, but probably to court clerks (by the way, Moscow City Court has become a pioneer in the practice of sequestering assistants and judges’ clerks to regional courts, which has given the judicial system the decided appearance of a vacuum).
In the federal law “On the status of judges”, passed on 26 June 1992 with numerous amendments, including the latest one from October 2019, it is written in black and white (Article 6.1, paragraph 14): “The same person can be appointed to the postion of chair (deputy chair) more than once, but not more than twice in a row.” But – do not trust your eyes.
When Egorova first encountered this problem in 2014, she was helped out by the procedure for introducing previous amendments from 15 December 2001, according to which the rule did not apply to judges’ terms from before the entry into force of the Federal Law of 2001. Looked at this way, Egorova’s actual third term, to which she was appointed in 2014, became her “second”. From a legal point of view this is rather murky, but many other chairs of courts have retained their posts in just the same way.
But now, is this the last incident? Indeed no. Although these provisions of the Federal Law of December 2001 are in force, and included in all official databases, nevertheless on 29 July 2018 a Federal Constitutional Law, “On introducing amendments to the Federal Constitutional Law ‘On the Judicial System of the Russian Federation’”, was adopted in connection with the creation of courts of appeal and cassation. At the very end (Article 7, paragraph 6) there is a subtle note: if the chair of the court (including one at Egorova’s level) has been in office “twice or more in a row” then after the entry into force of the Federal Constitutional Law (which has higher status than the simple Federal Law, “On the Status of Judges”) they can remain “for no more than one term”.
This is completely in the spirit of fresh amendments to the Constitution and the conclusions of the Constitutional Court regarding their “accord” when amendments to the inviolable Chapters 1 and 2 were actually introduced into other chapters; and perhaps no significance should be read into it. Quite on the contrary: now even at the level of the Constitution lawmakers have added to their arsenal the same intricate means of dragging into it something that is difficult for them to refuse.
Egorova has always been at the centre of attention in both the judicial and political communities, as well as in the media (in well-meaning sources and otherwise). Recently, as her term comes to a close, this has intensified. Of the legitimate claims against her, being reprimanded for bias in cases with hidden political motives need not even be mentioned — it’s too obvious. Instead, what should be highlighted are the numerous pieces of evidence (confirmed by investigations in the media) stating that Moscow judges have participated in corporate raiding schemes.
In December 2019, a ruling by the Second Court of Cassation contained commentary directed at Moscow City Court pointing out a violation of constitutional rights (which in and of itself sounds menacing) when handling cases on pre-trial restrictions. Egorova personally lodged a complaint against this ruling under cassational procedure, classifying the unheard of commentary as interference in the due process of law. The case did make it to the Supreme Court for an initial consideration, but on 24 March Judge V. M. Kulyabin refused to transfer the complaint for a hearing at the Supreme Court, having examined Egorova’s arguments in a detailed ruling.
Many analysts consider that to be a black mark, but I wouldn’t attach too much significance to it, although when assessing her candidacy in the event that there should be competition (not without Lebedev’s approval, of course) it could turn into formal grounds for someone to decide against Egorova.
Olga Aleksandrovna herself gave a long “business breakfast” interview to Rossiiskaya gazeta sometime in March (it was published on 22 March, but of course it would have taken a few days to prepare for publication). There’s a lot of fluff in the interview, but if you read it carefully you’ll find something interesting in it, too.
For example, the chair of Moscow City Court confirms she has a “magic button” that lets her see what is happening in any of the session halls in the capital at any time, and she even promotes this as a best practice. But this is like prison for the judges, and it’s a sign of widespread surveillance and complete distrust in all of them — especially since with a system like this, other “magicians” may very well get access, too.
There’s also a video of the “business breakfast” (which has nothing to do with breakfast, by the way) on the Rossiiskaya gazeta website, but it’s clearly just the last 15 minutes, when the journalists in the hall ask her purely business questions, nothing too tricky — largely about car crashes. But this part from the tail end wound up at the very beginning of the print version for some reason, meaning they cut and pasted at will.
It’s funny that with editing and unmistakable approval by the interviewee like this, in response to the reproach for prosecutorial bias Egorova cites the case of Colonel Zakharchenko as the best example of an “acquittal”: We acquitted him of “one of his crimes” (in fact it was for the main one). I don’t think that slipped in incidentally. Egorova has always (and justifiably so) been considered a puppet and true soldier of the law enforcement lobby.
Despite the rather vague definition of this ‘lobby,’ Egorova’s fate will also be an indicator for us of their influence on the most politically important decisions in the country.