March 01, 2000

The Yeltsin Legacy

Two days before Boris Yeltsin resigned on December 31, a retired captain in the Russian navy, Alexander Nikitin, was acquitted of espionage in a St. Petersburg courtroom and released from custody. Nikitin’s alleged crime was passing information about Russian nuclear submarines to a Norwegian environmental group. The judge ruled that the suit had been brought under an ex post facto law in “direct violation of the constitution.”

As far as anyone, including Nikitin’s lawyers, can gather, this is the first time in Russian history that the secret police—the FSB, successor to the KGB—has been forced to release a person it had accused of treason. Indeed the mere fact that the trial was open to the public is a miracle. A five-minute sentencing before a troika of KGB officers and a bullet in the back of the head in the basement of the Lubyanka prison, or a slow death by starvation in a faraway labor camp would have been Nikitin’s fate under the Soviet regime. This time, the FSB released a statement acknowledging that the ruling had been “reached on the basis of the law.”

Astonishing as it is, the Nikitin case is not an exception but part of a trend. In 1998, over 100,000 lawsuits were brought by ordinary citizens against government officials for illegal administrative actions, and in 80 percent of them, the courts ruled for the plaintiffs. Since the constitution requires that all capital cases be heard by juries, and only a few Russian provinces have begun to experiment with jury trials, capital punishment has been, in effect, abolished in Russia—a country that, along with the United States, China, and South Africa, led the world in executions just a few years back. The courts also have been throwing out—by the dozen—the Army’s cases against “deserters,” on the ground that the Army has violated their constitutional right to alternative service. And the courts have dismissed numerous suits against foreign religious “sects” brought by local authorities under the restrictive and xenophobic Law on Religious Freedom passed by the Duma over Yeltsin’s veto in 1997.

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