20 years under Putin: a timeline

December 5, 2010

On December 3, Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars (Washington, D.C.) held a panel discussion on the problems of independent judiciary in Russia. The experts pointed out that the double standards established in Russian legal system, especially in the politically driven cases such as Khodorkovsky case, obstruct the country on the path to the rule of law.


Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, Washington D.C.


The discussion by the title ‘Russia in Search of an Independent Judiciary’ hosted by Kennan Institute consisted of two parts. During the first part moderated by Ariel Cohen, Senior Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, the outlines of the existing legal system in Russia were made and its basic drawbacks were mentioned. Peter Maggs, Professor of Law, Clifford M. and Bette A. Carney Chair in Law, University of Illinois, made a brief description of various court systems in Russia, underlining the major problems that Russian judges have to face today: low salaries, poor education, interference by party officials, bribery.

The other expert of this part of the discussion Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics, University of Kent, raised the issue to a higher level by linking the state of the judiciary to the characteristics of the political system. “Russia is a classic example of a dual state. On one hand the country has an adequate legal instrument – the idea of constitution, which is a strong pillar of the state. On the other hand, there’s an arbitrary, shadow world that doesn’t abide to the l aw, which is another pillar. The society is torn between them”, Prof. Sakwa said. In his opinion since Yukos affair was initiated in 2003 by government officials, these tensions became clear. It showed that authorities use the law to pursue political objectives. Also, since that moment there’s been a stalemate in political and legal developments in Russia. And as the public opinion is concerned, Mr. Sakwa noticed that the surveys show that Russian people are aware of these issues but in majority they don’t care.


Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics; Vadim Kluvgant, lead defense attorney for Mikhail Khodorkovsky

During the second part of the conference, moderated by William Pommeranz, Deputy Director of Kennan Institute, the Yukos affair and Khodorkovsky and Lebedev case came more into focus. In the view of the upcoming verdict in the so called second case of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, Vadim Kluvgant, lead defense attorney for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, made a statement that the case is nothing more than a fiction and a flam in which the very fact of crime is missing. “These two years of the trial process demonstrated that the case has no legal basis. At the last oral argument prosecution openly pressured the court. If the verdict is guilty, it simply signifies that modern Russia lacks protection of property rights, that to go to Russian courts is pointless and that the country is governed by corrupted bureaucracy. It might also give another prospective to the popular discussions about modernization, reset and Russian Silicon Valley as a positive investment environment”, concluded Mr. Kluvgant.

Susan Glasser, Editor in Chief of Foreign Policy Magazine, in her speech quoted the recent WikiLeaks report in which Khodorkovsky case is metaphorically described as a “lipstick mark on the political pig”. She agreed, as everybody else in the auditorium, that though his acquittal is not likely to happen, the verdict itself will have a great impact. “The timing of the verdict is important in the U.S. We see the Republican House is now fighting President Obama initiatives which means there will be a lot of noise on the subject when the verdict comes out”. Ms. Glasser also mentioned that as a journalist who followed Khodorkovsky case from the very beginning and was present at many court sessions, she considered the trial a “farcical procedure”. “The evidence is simply absurd in terms of American legal system: i.e. the clips from internet that are presented as prosecutable evidence. It was not flattering for the Russian political establishment that Mikhail Khodorkovsky was able to speak more crispy and eloquent from jail than the prosecution”.

In the end the experts agreed that after the verdict was announced on December 15, depending on its content, there will be grounds to draw further conclusions for the prospective of independent judiciary in Russia and the reliability of the country as an international partner.

Russia under Putin

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