Russia's upper house of parliament has approved a measure that would give President Vladimir Putin effective control over the body that approves candidates for the country's higher courts and also disciplines and dismisses senior judges. The plan has drawn fresh criticism that the Kremlin's centralization of power is undermining, if not eradicating, all potential checks on the executive branch.
Under the measure, which was approved Wednesday by a vote of 175 to 2, the composition of the Supreme Qualification Collegium, which appoints members of the country's federal courts, including the Supreme Court, would be changed. The measure also needs to be approved by the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, which is controlled by pro-Kremlin parties.
At present, 18 of the body's 29 members are elected by secret ballot by other judges who are members of the All-Russia Congress of Judges. Ten members representing the public are appointed by the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council. Putin has the right to appoint one representative.
The new structure would trim the body to 21 members. Putin would have the right to nominate 10 judges, who would be subject to the approval of the Federation Council, which generally endorses his initiatives. The speaker of the Federation Council, currently a Putin loyalist, would appoint the 10 public members. And Putin would continue to directly appoint one representative.
"This is part of the process of building a vertical power structure, and it's spreading that process over to the judiciary," said Sergei Pashin, a former federal judge who has advocated comprehensive legal reforms. "The Kremlin's influence on the judiciary is becoming absolute."
The action follows a recent Kremlin push to abolish elections for regional governors and to change the electoral process for the Duma to make it harder for independent candidates to secure seats.
Those measures and others have drawn criticism from other countries that Putin is damaging Russia's democratic institutions. This week, 115 U.S. and European political and cultural leaders, including Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, signed an open letter charging that the Kremlin has "systematically undercut the freedom and independence of the press, destroyed the checks and balances in the Russian federal system, arbitrarily imprisoned both real and imagined political rivals, removed legitimate candidates from electoral ballots, harassed and arrested NGO leaders and weakened Russia's political parties."
Putin has not commented on the letter, which was sent to the leaders of European Union and NATO countries.
The judiciary measure's sponsor, the chairman of the Federation Council, Sergei Mironov, said the proposal would help root out corruption in the justice system, which he said had weakened Russia's response to terrorism. The same rationale was given for the bill to end the election of governors.
"These measures will improve the effectiveness of the judicial system," Mironov said.
Putin would also have the right to dismiss any judge he had appointed, with the support of a majority of the collegium, and the Federation Council could fire the public representatives. Putin already has the right to nominate members of the Constitutional Court, the country's highest judicial body.
The collegium's chairman, Valentin Kuznetsov, said he learned of the measure only when a Russian newspaper reporter contacted him. "It collides with the constitution," he told the newspaper Gazeta, saying it violates a 1998 European charter signed by Russia that stipulates that 50 percent of the membership of bodies that appoint judges should come from elections among judges themselves.
"The initiative is very stupid, but unfortunately it's in the spirit of the times," Yuri Sidorenko, the chairman of the Council of Judges, told Gazeta. "It is clear those actions will be aimed at limiting the independence of courts and judges."