Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 67

The German government yesterday expressed disappointment at the Russian Constitutional Court decision that President Boris Yeltsin acted unconstitutionally last year when he refused to sign into law a bill aimed at preventing the repatriation of art treasures seized by Soviet troops during World War II. The law would declare all such "trophy art" to be Russian federal property. Passed last spring by both houses of the Russian parliament and vetoed by Yeltsin, it was readopted by both houses of parliament, whereupon Yeltsin simply refused to sign it into law, citing procedural irregularities in the parliamentary voting. The artworks in question include both gold from Troy and paintings by Rembrandt, Matisse and Monet. Some were taken by Soviet troops from German museums and private collections but others were seized by Nazi occupation forces in countries such as The Netherlands and Poland. Yeltsin, in first refusing to sign the bill into law, cited its failure to distinguish between the different provenances of the art works.

Yesterday, Yeltsin’s aide Sergei Shakhrai said the bill flies in the face of international law. Since international law takes precedence over Russia’s constitution, Shakhrai said, the president will continue to refuse to sign regardless of the findings of the Constitutional Court. The German government also said yesterday that the bill violates international law. (Financial Times, April 7)

The case creates a precedent. It is unusual and unexpected for the Constitutional Court to stand up to the president. The fact that it has done so is an indication of the strength of the emotions the issue arouses in Russia. The case may provide useful fuel for the impeachment case that two radical Duma deputies — Communist firebrand Viktor Ilyukhin and retired General Lev Rokhlin–are threatening to launch against Yeltsin. Until now their chances had not looked very convincing. It is possible, however, that the issue of trophy art may provide the ammunition they need to show that the president has violated the constitution.

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