Ad Nauseam


 

'Someone must be trusted. Let it be the judges.' The famous words of Lord Denning, a maverick yet great British judge, might sum up what many Russians thought 20 years ago. Back in 1991, when the Soviet state collapsed in distrust and detestation, the judiciary was seen as the force that could bring integrity to the troubled country and prop up the wretched stature of the country’s ruling elite.

Today the judges are the most despised, mistrusted group of the Establishment. According to the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre, VCIOM, just one in four respondents trust the justice system. This is less than the number of people who believe in President, police, politicians or even journalists - which in itself is quite extraordinary. There is nothing new when people have little faith in public figures – ‘they all lie’ is a time-tested basis for the electorate-authorities bonding. What is odd is that in the public’s eyes judges have sunk deeper than all those proverbial liars.

‘Don’t we know that judges take bribes?’ said Dmitry Medvedev, ‘They do. Who is easier to catch red-handed, a policeman or a judge? A policeman, of course, or an investigator, or a prosecutor, or a civil servant, but just try to catch a judge!’ According to the President, the judiciary has become a ‘corporation set in stone’ incapable of self-purification.

He has reason to be angry. When a professor of law came to power three years ago, it was widely believed that putting the justice system right could shore up his position in the 2012 elections. It turns out that the judiciary will not bring him popularity but shame.

The Soviet law, which existed until 1991, knew little about the division of powers, a multiparty political system, private ownership of means of production, independent judiciary, and many other things that lie at the heart of today’s Russian law. Many areas of law such as company law, commercial contracts or an adversarial system of dispute resolution – a lawyer’s bread and butter - did not exist or existed only in a rudimentary form.

A judge, or a lawyer, in the mouth of a Soviet citizen meant something different from what people of the western countries mean. In the West the idea of the separation of powers have dominated the public life since the mid 18th century when Montesquieu published his “Spirit of the Laws”, making the judiciary a central pillar of the state. In the Soviet Union judges were a marginal group of bureaucrats that didn’t have a grain of the grandeur of their western counterparts.

Though in every country there are those who feel antipathy toward lawyers, in Russia a strong dislike of the judiciary is a part of culture. ‘Where there is judgement there is injustice,’ goes a Russian proverb. You can hardly find a judge as a positive character in Russian literature, rather a famous Lyapkin-Tyapkin, who had read five or six books and considered himself an honest judge because he took bribes by greyhound puppies which, he said, ‘was an entirely different matter’.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the judiciary in East Germany was dissolved and a new one formed. In theory, lustration targeted only those who had strong connection to the secret service; in reality most judges were replaced.

There was no such purge in Russia. Though fresh blood was injected into the profession, it is not always apparent why a particular person was given the job. So a professor of 12th century customary law could suddenly become the head of an appellate court, or a specialist in the theory of criminal law could be elevated to Chairman of the St.Petersburg Charter Court, a special body that deals primarily with constitutional law, a field only remotely connected to the area of his expertise.

Looking back to 1991, it is astonishing how naïve Russians were in hoping they could transform the system by changing the law but keeping in their places those who execute it.

If Dmitry Medvedev really wants to transform the Russian justice system he should care less about making new laws and more about how the existing ones are followed. Above all, he should pay special attention to the people whose job it is to implement the law. The simple truth is that in the wrong hands the best legislation means nothing.

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