Russia's legislature is considering a proposal to abolish one of the country's top courts, the Supreme Arbitration Court, and consolidate it under the Supreme Court. The bill before the Duma also would expand the Kremlin's power to politically shape the country on a more granular level via the judicial system amid political and social changes inside the country.
This is the Kremlin's first consolidation of a major part of the Russian system since a series of consolidations in the early to mid-2000s. While there are systematic reasons for the judicial consolidation, the proposal -- spearheaded by Russian President Vladimir Putin -- faces opposition, as the new, larger court would tip the political balance within the country and eliminate a court system that was regarded as more efficient and less corrupt than the Supreme Court.
Russia's judicial system consists of three courts: the Constitutional Court, Supreme Court and Supreme Arbitration Court. These courts oversee tiers of courts below them: regional, district, magistrate and others. Each high court has its own jurisdiction. The Constitutional Court is largely independent from its two sisters, as it only oversees matters pertaining to the Russian Constitution and disputes between federal bodies. The Supreme Court is the higher of the two remaining courts, having a general jurisdiction over civil, criminal and nearly every other type of case. The Supreme Arbitration Court, also called the Commercial Court, oversees economic and commercial arbitration.
Russia's Judicial System
But even with the distinctions between the types of cases the high courts oversee, there are some discrepancies and ambiguities between the Supreme Court and the Supreme Arbitration Court. The two have fought over power and jurisdiction since their inception in 1993. The Supreme Court and its supporters have argued that it holds final say in all matters except constitutional issues, even though the Supreme Arbitration Court is technically the ultimate venue for all commercial arbitration. The Supreme Court has, in several instances, encroached on commercial cases. This has occasionally led to one court overturning a verdict reached by the other court, and to commercial arbitration cases going to one court instead of the other in attempts to get a favorable outcome.
As far as perception, the Supreme Arbitration Court has been viewed as the more modern, efficient, impartial and less corrupt of the two high courts. The Supreme Arbitration Court's practices have even drawn praise from the European Court of Human Rights. The Supreme Court, however, has faced accusations from within Russia and by foreign groups of being protectionist, political and corrupt. The efficiency of the Supreme Arbitration Court could be attributed to the lighter caseload, as it receives only 35 appeals per month on average compared to the Supreme Court's 200 appeals per month.
There is also a political aspect to the courts' power struggle, because each is aligned with a different political group. The Supreme Court, headed by Vyacheslav Lebedev, is largely considered to have political support from the security hawk siloviki faction within the Kremlin. The Supreme Arbitration Court, headed by Anton Ivanov, is closer to the more reformist and liberal civiliki faction associated with Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev.
In the past year, competition between the two courts has become increasingly fierce. In 2012, the Supreme Court attempted to create "administrative courts" that would oversee arbitration, meaning that all arbitration would become subordinate to the Supreme Court instead of the Supreme Arbitration Court. The Supreme Arbitration Court was able to block this move in March of this year. In recent months, the siloviki factions put forward the candidacy of Vladimir Vinokurov, who had never served as a judge, for deputy head of the Supreme Arbitration Court in order to infiltrate the system and undermine Ivanov -- something Ivanov was able to block politically because of his ally Medvedev's influence.
Attempts to Reconcile the Courts
Major structural reforms to clarify the courts' positions and power have been attempted continually, including previous proposals to merge the two courts. In the past year, Putin has attempted to find a compromise between the courts by proposing an Administrative Judiciary, which would create some sort of supreme judicial panel with three representatives from each of the three top courts. However, Constitutional Court Chief Valery Zorkin deemed this proposal unconstitutional in a rare disagreement between the court chief and the president. A series of criticisms in the media said the proposed Administrative Judiciary was too reminiscent of the Communist Party Central Committee, which developed centralized legal positions in the Soviet Union.
Instead, the president is now supporting the consolidation of the courts, which would give the Supreme Arbitration Court's functions to the Supreme Court, creating what Russian media have dubbed a "super court." The Supreme Court would then increase its number of judges from 125 to 170, which means that the new court would not absorb all of the current 53 arbitration judges. According to Putin, the consolidated court system would streamline judicial procedures and practices and eliminate redundancies.
This consolidation would require a change to the Russian Constitution, which divides the two court systems, though constitutional modifications would be relatively easy under Putin's direction. It would be the largest structural change within the Russian government since Putin's string of political, economic, social and security consolidations in the early 2000s.
Criticisms of Putin's Proposal
The Supreme Arbitration Court, as well as many in Russia's legal and political circles, has harshly criticized the proposed consolidation. On Oct. 10, seven judges from the Supreme Arbitration Court resigned in protest of the bill. The head of Russia's Intellectual Property Rights Court, Lyudmila Novoselova, said the quality of commercial arbitration would be reduced under the Supreme Court. Ivanov added that a unified court would end up being a "dinosaur guided by a small brain that needs tuning."
Many critics see political motives behind Putin's proposal. Having one super court instead of two competing courts would give one faction -- either siloviki or civiliki -- unprecedented power to shape politics, business and other facets of the country. It is unclear who would head the enlarged Supreme Court, which is aligned with the siloviki. Rumors have indicated that the Supreme Court's chief position could be given to the more liberal civiliki clan in order to avoid alienating foreign investors, who have said they are more willing to invest in Russia based on the more efficient track record of the Supreme Arbitration Court. Whoever might control the new Supreme Court, the appointment will create a battle within Putin's already delicately balanced inner circle.
There is another possible motive for Putin's proposal: The bill submitted to the Duma includes an amendment that would give Putin the authority to directly appoint prosecutors in the regions -- currently a prerogative of the prosecutor general. This would give the country's leader an unusual amount of granular power.
It could be that Putin is concerned about shaping the shifts taking place across the country. As Stratfor has observed, Russia is going through a series of social and political changes that are eroding Putin's consolidated control over the country. Handpicking the people within the regions' judicial circles could help Putin shape the policies and precedents for regional politics and business. In slipping the amendment in with larger judicial reforms, Putin could be signaling that he is increasingly worried about his power in the regions -- just as a growing power struggle is about to intensify in Moscow.
Read more: Russia: Putin's Motives for Judicial Consolidation | Stratfor