- - Wednesday, October 23, 2013


One of the main reasons that growth of an effective democratic movement has been stalled in Russia is the country has no substantial legal tradition. There is little understanding of what the law is aside from being the dictates of a ruler.

From the imperial period when the czars had the final say in trials to the Soviet period when rulers could criminalize artistic work based on their arbitrary opinion to the modern day when courts selectively target individuals inimical to the state, the expression of law has been tied to the expression of power. Examples of this abound. Mikhail Khodorovsky, the billionaire whose wealth was taken by President Putin to fill budget shortfalls, has had his sentence increased on several occasions because he’s seen as a political threat. Investigative journalists are often mugged and even killed, with police and courts refusing to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators. Opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, recently released from jail after a theft conviction, is just the latest casualty of this system.

The law is, in fact, a system of morals and ethics, some relative and some natural, that society acknowledges as being just. It does not provide benefits to one group over another, but creates an order that people can trust. Yet instead of order, Russia suffers from organized chaos. Will the elections be fair? Will the police listen to me? Will my property be seized? Will I be persecuted for this? All of these are questions that people in Russia face. The only certainty is that someone will have to be bribed.

Therefore, even if Mr. Navalny had been elected Moscow’s mayor, there would have been little that he could have done without addressing this problem. Even Mikhail Gorbachev and his well-meaning privatization effort failed because the law was made to benefit the insiders.

The way forward is uncharted. Whereas in the United States, the system of federalism and constitutionalism serves to check unjust laws and increase democratic input, such structures are virtually non-existent in a county centralized by Mr. Putin and the remaining oligarchs. Perhaps only a movement that seeks greater local autonomy will be able to create a competitive legal system in Russia.



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