IN what was billed as the most crucial legal decision in the post-Soviet era, Russia's Constitutional Court gave President Boris Yeltsin a partial victory, upholding the main points of his ban of the Communist Party.
But the 13 court justices failed to deliver the unequivocal decision that Mr. Yeltsin and his supporters sought, thus clearing the way for the revival of the Communist Party.
The court ruled that Yeltsin was right to ban the top leadership bodies of the party, such as the infamous Politburo and Central Committee. But it decided that the president exceeded his powers in outlawing local party organizations. The court also ruled that local party organizations were entitled to a return of some property confiscated earlier this year under a presidential order.
"It was a compromise," Constitutional Court Justice Ernest Ametistov said in an interview after the decision. "The crucial point of the whole trial was the examination of the juridical and social nature of the Communist Party in this country: Was it some kind of state or was it a political party?"
A minority of the court decided it was a party, Justice Ametistov revealed. This led to the compromise ruling that while top party structures were part of the state, grass-roots organizations met the definition of a political party.
"The court tried to settle the case in such a way that the innocent will not suffer. In this sense it paves the way for civic accord," says Sergei Pashin, a judicial reform expert at the Russian State Legal Department.
Though not a total victory for Yeltsin, Mr. Pashin said the ruling gives a boost to the president's political position as he tries to keep market-style reforms on course in the face of growing opposition from conservatives. The president is gearing up for a showdown with reform opponents at the Congress of People's Deputies, Russia's highest legislative body, which meets today.
The decision met a mixed reaction from both sides.
"The decision in fact confirms the legality of the party and its ideology," Valentin Kupstov, a member of the party's legal defense team, told reporters. But he also expressed dissatisfaction with the decision to uphold the overall ban on the party, charging that the court had bowed to political pressures.
"Certain questions are left unanswered in both legal and political terms for the president and his supporters," Yeltsin aide Gennady Burbulis told reporters yesterday. The ruling leaves open the ultimate status of party property and the definition of a grass-roots organization, he said.
The court trial began on July 7 after Communist Party supporters appealed Yeltsin's ban on the party, which was issued following the failed August 1991 coup. In response, presidential aides filed a suit maintaining that the party's entire 73-year reign as the unchallenged authority in the Soviet Union had been illegal.
The court concurred that at the highest level the party functioned as part of the state. The court nonetheless ruled as unconstitutional several provisions of Yeltsin's presidential decrees, stating the local party organizations should have been exempted from the presidential ban. Grass-roots Communist cells have the right to exist "on condition that in case they are organized as a political party, on par with other parties, the requirements of the Constitution and the laws of the Russian Federation are complied with," the ruling said.
The court also stated that it was illegal for Yeltsin to order the blanket confiscation of party property. Property that was owned by the state, but in reality used by the party, was properly subject to confiscation, the court ruled. But all property belonging solely to the party at the time the presidential decrees were issued should not have been liable to confiscation, the court added.
The Constitutional Court's ruling paves the way for a myriad of local court cases that will decide what property was legally confiscated, and what was taken in violation of the law.
"They will be very difficult suits," Ametistov predicted.
On the questions of the party's right to exist and the legality of its actions while in power, the court failed to render a verdict. It reasoned that the breakup of the Soviet Union last December effectively meant the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party, as well as its Russian party subsidiary, thus rendering moot the question of the organization's legality.
The ruling confirmed the Constitutional Court's independent nature. Since its inception a year ago, the court has not backed away from issuing decisions that went against Yeltsin, most notably overturning a presidential order that tried to merge the KGB and Interior Ministry into a super Security Ministry.
The court will now turn its attention to the legality of another Yeltsin decree: the ban of the National Salvation Front, an alliance of hard-line former Communists and extreme Russian nationalists.
Experts say the constitutional basis for Yeltsin's banning of the front is much more tenuous than for his outlawing of the party.