European Court straddles the fence on Yukos

The European Court on Human Rights (ECHR) has found that the Yukos trials were unfair but that the actions of Russia's tax authorities were not politically motivated.

The European Court on Human Rights (ECHR) has found that the Yukos trials were unfair but that the actions of Russia's tax authorities were not politically motivated. The court did not award Yukos the damages it sought from the Russian government, explaining that the sides have time to agree on the sum.

Experts consider this decision to be a compromise. They think the Russian government will take it without much enthusiasm but is unlikely to appeal against it for fear of creating a conflict with the Council of Europe.

Yukos representatives filed the lawsuit in the Strasbourg-based court in 2004, arguing that the Russian authorities unlawfully seized the property and, in doing so, violated a number of provisions of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, notably, the right to a fair trial and the protection of property.

In 2006, Yukos was declared insolvent because of the government's multi-billion tax claims. Its assets were later auctioned. State-owned Rosneft acquired its most lucrative deposits. Disputing the legality of the tax claims from 2000 to 2003, Yukos demanded more than $98 billion in compensation for damages.

Lawyers polled by the Russia Legal Information Agency (RAPSI) on the eve of the court's ruling predicted that the ECHR would not award the damages because the court was designed to ensure compliance with the human rights convention rather than punish states by imposing huge fines. Before the ruling was made, analysts predicted that Russia's reaction would depend on the amount of damages awarded, if any.

Straddling the fence

Both the Russian government and human rights activists welcomed the ruling. Mikhail Barshchevsky, plenipotentiary representative of the Russian government in higher courts, said that the court's ruling that the Yukos trials were not politically motivated is a "colossal victory" for the Russian representatives in court.

The Russian authorities most likely welcomed the court's decision because it did not award Yukos damages. Alexei Makarkin, vice president of the Center for Political Technologies, told RIA Novosti on the eve of the ruling: "If the court rules that the authorities violated the convention, but this will not entail any serious financial consequences for them (moral consequences are routine and no longer bother anyone), I don't think such a ruling would have any fatal consequences."

Human rights activists do not resent the court's ruling, either. Yelena Panfilova, a member of the presidential human rights council, said the court made the right decision, having focused on the economic rather than political aspect of the matter.

"Under the circumstances, the ECHR found itself in a very difficult position because from the moment it agreed to hear the case, it turned from an economic to a strictly political case," she said. "In 2001 this case had no political overtones but it acquired them after the first and the second trials. The ECHR did the right thing."

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said she had no doubts that the court would rule that the trial was unfair, although she regards the Yukos case to have been political.

Uneasy relations

Having ratified the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in 1998, Russia quickly became the leader in terms of the number of complaints filed by private individuals with the ECHR. The Russian government loses the majority of cases that go to trial. Needless to say, it doesn't like this practice and has repeatedly suggested that the court's decisions are politically motivated.

Last year Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that "political motives must be completely ruled out in the activities of the [Strasbourg] court. Regrettably, there are attempts to influence the court from the outside and they are being taken not by us but by some European states."

Meanwhile, analysts say the court's current ruling and its earlier verdict on the Mikhail Khodorkovsky case, whereby it did not find any political motives, testify to the contrary.

Political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky told RIA Novosti: "The European court is approaching its cases in a very formal manner. This is why it did not recognize the political nature of the Khodorkosvky case last time although public opinion, particularly in Europe, was leaning in this direction. If the court had had political motives it would have followed public opinion and would have issued the toughest possible ruling on the Khodorkovsky case. The court has a set of very formal criteria that it strictly follows."

Makarkin spoke about the Russian government's difficult relations with the ECHR: "When we were just entering the Council of Europe in the 1990s and had to ratify all the required documents, we had a kind of romantic hope that we would see what is what, we'd become a member and be welcomed as good guys."

However, this hope soon vanished as the court ruled against the Russian government time after time.

Cooperation with European institutions to continue

Russia's relationship with the court was aggravated in 2010 when the ECHR ruled against the Russian Constitutional Court's refusal to grant child care leave to army serviceman Konstantin Markin. Last June Acting Chairman of the Federation Council Alexander Torshin submitted a bill to the State Duma to allow the Constitutional Court to block the ECHR rulings.

Makarkin told RIA Novosti that experts believe this was a warning to the Strasbourg court not to rule against Russia on the Khodorkovsky case.

Belkovsky thinks that Torshin's bill was a "deliberate provocation." In his opinion the bill was submitted just to be blocked later. A virtual threat was made; later on the threat was removed, thereby creating an opportunity for improving the strained relations," he explained.

Both analysts believe that if Russia passes this bill, it will be immediately expelled from the Council of Europe because the Constitutional Court will start defending the interests of the state, which contradicts the ECHR concept. The Russian government cannot allow this to happen because Russia's expulsion from the Council of Europe will lead to its international isolation. "If we quit the Council of Europe, we'll find ourselves on the level of Belarus in terms of human rights. In other words, we'll be isolated," Makarkin warns.

"No matter how Russia's relations with the ECHR develop, Russia will continue its cooperation with the court and will not recall its representatives because cooperation with European institutions is a strategic policy of the Russian government and the ruling elite as a whole," Belkovsky adds.

Both analysts believe that the confrontation between Russia and the ECHR will be limited to tough words without any real political consequences.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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