Leonid Nikitinsky: The dark horse at the river crossing [Novaya gazeta]

16 March 2024

by Leonid Nikitinsky

Source: Novaya Gazeta

On Thursday afternoon, Aleksandr Khinshtein, Chair of the State Duma Committee on Information Policy, Information Technologies and Communications, published the following message on his Telegram channel: “Irina Podnosova, named by the media as the most likely successor to Vyacheslav Lebedev, has applied to bid for the post of Chief Justice of the Russian Federation”.

It had to be Khinshtein to know that! But he had no need to go to the newspaper Vedomosti, to which he refers for some reason as “the media”, that is, in the plural, to find out. The seasoned MP and journalist may well be aware of other applications for the vacancy that opened after the death of Vyacheslav Lebedev, but he isn’t letting on if he does. Vedomosti, meanwhile, on whose Telegram channel the message first appeared, at 8:30am (meaning that it was probably received late the night before), refers only to anonymous sources within the Presidential Administration and judicial community.

To rate Podnosova’s chances, we need to answer two quite different questions: 

  1. How appealing is the position of chief justice to prospective candidates?
  2. How important is it to the stability of the current political regime?

There might be many contenders for the main seat in the hierarchy established by the late Lebedev, but only those confident of the president’s support would risk applying (initially, to the High Qualification Board of Judges, or HQJC). It is the president who will make the HQJC-approved nomination to the Federation Council.

However, the candidate also has to weigh up their prospects in the long term. They must feel confident in the backrooms of the Povarskaya Street palace, where, as is the case in any close circle of officials making decisions in contentious situations that could lead to tectonic political and economic shifts, intrigue, denunciation, and scheming play a considerable role.

Like any leader in such an organisation, even after presiding for 35 years, Lebedev did his best to shake off any strong competitors. In so doing, he created a “successor problem”. Is Podnosova the person to whom the late departed high priest entrusted closely held professional secrets?

In July 2020, Podnosova, a former classmate of the president, whose only experience prior to that had been in the Leningrad Region courts of general jurisdiction, headed up the Supreme Court’s Economic Collegium in her capacity as Deputy Chief Justice. Following the liquidation of Russia’s Supreme Arbitration Court in 2014, the entire arbitration system was bound to her. Oleg Sviridenko, who had previously headed this key collegium, was packed off amid open scandal by Lebedev to the Ministry of Justice. There, as a deputy minister, he is now engaged, as far as we know, in hardly the most promising work for an apparatchik: overseeing the register of ‘foreign agents’.

‘Naming’ Putin’s classmate Podnosova was, in and of itself, enough to make her invincible against her colleagues as Russian Deputy Chief Justice. 

Additionally, there is no compromising material against her in the public domain, whereas there was plenty available on her predecessor.

But that’s far from being a plus point in the eyes of those set to discuss the candidate for a new chief justice with the president’s inner circle. The “new Lebedev” cog in the wheel must be sufficiently reliable so as not to let the side down in extreme circumstances, when (and if) the whole political system should teeter. Well, so what if it’s a classmate? That was a full half century ago, and they’re now over 70, the pair of them! Someone else is needed here – more of a technocrat, a figurehead. It’s not hard to find someone like that in the judicial system.

The day that Khinshtein’s message appeared, the Telegram channel of the Moscow Public Prosecutor’s Office (and probably others besides) warned pro-opposition voters that showing up at polling stations at midday on Sunday could be considered a violation of Art. 141 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, “Obstruction of the exercise of electoral rights or the work of election commissions.” From a legal standpoint, such criminal cases would be highly dubious, but when (and if) these cases go to court, the judges will consider them “properly”, and they won’t need any instructions from on high.

There is no chief justice, but the default settings have been applied. Over the course of 35 years, the late Lebedev, may he rest in peace, rigged the system in such a way that, in any criminal and administrative cases with a political component or that relate to elections, it will continue to operate in perpetual motion until there is a change in the country’s top leadership.

The Kremlin is now beset by other problems, including the co-opting of the new power elite and the redistribution of property. There is a great deal of uncertainty here. Take, for example, the three-year statute of limitations for claims regarding dubious (and substantially dubious) privatisation transactions of the early and mid-1990s. The Public Prosecutor’s Office has recently proposed to start calculating such a ‘statute of limitation’ from the point at which it, the Prosecutor’s Office, “learned of a violation”. In terms of the facts, this is cunning, but from a legal standpoint, it’s absurd. What would be the point of having a statute of limitations at all? 

So, in the billion-rouble arbitration disputes that will inevitably follow, judges will need to be constantly watched so that they don’t actually start making judgments based on the law, or in line with ‘informal agreements’ that are at odds with the ‘informal agreements’ that already exist in specific cases.

Why on earth make Podnosova change course, given that she has only just settled into the position of chair of the Economic Collegium? Why move her over to a position that is actually “less critical” now?

The application deadline for the vacancy of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is 22 March, and this appointment may become part of a package deal to be concluded amongst the current elites, primarily the security forces, after the presidential elections on March 15-17.

Translated by Lindsay Munford

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