CHATTING calmly in his sparsely furnished chambers, looking comfortable in a well-worn seersucker suit, Constitutional Court Justice Ernest Ametistov showed no strain from the immense pressure under which Russia's highest judicial body is working these days.
The attention of perhaps millions of Russians will focus on the court today, when hearings on the legality of President Boris Yeltsin's ban of the Communist Party are scheduled to begin. The court will simultaneously consider the party's constitutional right to exist.
The case is one of the most sensational in Russian history and has already produced a storm of passionate oratory from both sides. Supporters of Mr. Yeltsin's party ban, which followed last August's aborted coup, argue Russia must eliminate the Communist Party, just as the Nazis were neutralized in Germany following World War II. If Russia permits the party to exist, they add, the country runs the risk of civil war.
Ironically, Communist Party advocates argue that the ban must be overturned if Russia is to function as a democratic, law-governed state.
While the verbal sparring began to build intensity last week as the hearing date approached, Justice Ametistov's chambers remained tranquil. Holding his hands a yard apart, he says; "I have several stacks of documents this high related to the case." When asked when a decision could be expected, he replies, "God knows."
He realizes the ramifications of the court's decision could be far-reaching. But that has not changed the way he has prepared for today's hearings. "It's a very important case from the point of view of the public and the state bodies," he says. "But from the point of view of the Constitutional Court, this is a usual case, and we should treat it like any other case." Newly created court
Ametistov's voice expresses the confidence of someone who has been associated with an institution with a long and venerable past. Yet, the Constitutional Court is a relatively new body within the Russian governmental structure, created only last November.
Compliance with the court's decisions remains uncertain, some legal experts say. The court itself warned last month that "the constitutional system of Russia is under threat." It also criticized state security organs for "inadmissible passivity" in battling destabilizing forces in the country.
An independent judiciary was never a feature of the Russian political landscape either under the czars or during the period of Communist Party rule. Some look at the Communist Party case as a chance to change that, firmly establishing the judicial branch as one of the three pillars in the nascent Russian democratic state.
But Ametistov, one of 13 justices who now sit on the Constitutional Court, argues the Russian high court already has passed the critical stage in its development. He pointed to a ruling earlier this year that found a decree issued by Yeltsin merging the Interior Ministry and state security bodies to be unconstitutional. The president subsequently obeyed the court's decision.
"It was the first case in which the government reversed itself in deference to a court," Ametistov said. "The decision regarding the Communist Party should continue this line of behavior."
Government lawyers say their strategy at today's hearing will be to show that the Communist Party was never a political organization in the traditional sense of the term.
"The organization calling itself the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] has never been a political party," said State Secretary Gennady Burbulis at a news conference. "There was a state named the CPSU."
Former party leaders, meanwhile, call the case "a battle for democracy" and say government leaders are "demagogues" who seek to establish their own dictatorship. Valentin Kuptsov, the former head of the Russian Communist Party, claimed that the presidential ban violates "about 10 articles of the Constitution," adding; "We are sure the court ruling will favor us."
If the ban is overturned, Mr. Kuptsov said the party would make an immediate return to political life, but declared: "It would be a new party with a new program."
The mere existence of the Communist Party, however, would be enough to endanger the success of market-oriented reforms launched by the Russian government, argues Mr. Burbulis. It is the government's aim, he said, "to dismantle the state structure called the CPSU."
Though Mr. Yeltsin and others want to smash the party apparatus that dominated the former Soviet Union for more than 70 years, the government appears reluctant to enforce the ban. Burbulis indicated the government will not conduct a `witch hunt' of former Communists even in the event the court upholds the presidential ban. In addition, no effort was made to break up a so-called 29th Party Congress held over the weekend in suburban Moscow. The congress, which defied the Yeltsin ban, was attended by only a bout 90 party faithful. Communist Constitution rules
The great paradox of the case is that the Communists are being judged according to a constitution promulgated by the party itself. The absence of an updated constitution, as well as a lack of legal precedents, is now the greatest hindrance to the Constitutional Court's work, according to Justice Ametistov.
"There are some new articles," he said of the Constitution, "but there are still references to the USSR. It's like having references to ancient Rome in the Italian Constitution."
The Russian parliament, which contains an influential bloc of former Communists, has been unable to produce a new constitution, despite several attempts in the past two years to do so. Without a new constitution the court will not have a sound legal foundation, and the entire reform process will remain threatened, Ametistov said.
"Private property has no constitutional base and I think about this with anger," he said. The court "would have to rule any private property question unconstitutional."