Presumption of Failure

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

What was Russian President Dmitry Medvedev thinking when he decided to make judicial reform and the fight against corruption signature issues of his first presidential term?  He could have chosen something more abstract, say, doubling the country’s GDP — a topic few in Russia understand and even fewer care about.  Instead the brave, but reckless Medvedev plunged into the area where things are so bad that no real change can be expected any time soon, certainly not in four quick years.  It's no wonder that the prevailing opinion in Russia is that Medvedev’s reforms are failing. 

Not helping the president is the culture of “legal nihilism,” one of Medvedev's own favorite terms.  The seriousness of this phenomenon should not be underestimated.  According to public polls, more than 60 percent of Russians are convinced that the courts will not protect them from the abuse of the state.  Consequently, even if they believe that their rights were violated they would not go to court to sue a policeman (54 percent), criminal investigator (59 percent), or state official (58 percent). 

But here is an interesting twist: just a meager six percent of adult Russians have ever asked the courts to protect their constitutional rights.  And what would happen if they did?  According to a recent Vedomosti editorial, the results are not what a dedicated “legal nihilist” would predict.  In 2009-2010, there were 5,500 reported cases of citizens going to courts to ask for compensation due to unlawful actions of policemen, investigators or prosecutors.  And guess what?  The courts agreed with the citizens in 70 percent (3,800) of the cases.   Out of the 65,000 court cases in which state officials were sued for unlawful behavior, the courts sided with plaintiffs in 67 percent (46,500) of the cases.  And when the citizens sued individual, lower-ranked bureaucrats, courts ruled in their favor in 54 percent of the time (69,000 out of 127,000 cases).  The rate of success was even higher in trade disputes: consumers won 80 percent of courts cases against retailers and 90 percent of cases against creditors.  

What these data show is that despite the widespread perception that “there is no rule of law in Russia,” Russian courts protect the rights of ordinary Russians much more consistently that the public opinion is willing to give them credit for.  Indeed, many lawyers argue that in cases that are not politically motivated or involve big money, citizens have a decent chance of winning. 

Naturally, this assumes that citizens are fully aware of their constitutional rights.  But here is another twist: according to the above-mentioned polls, 80 percent of Russians know very little or nothing about their legal rights (worse yet, 60 percent are not interested in such a topic at all) and 70 percent believe that they have no access to relevant legal information.   In other words, in Russia disdain for the law (“legal nihilism”) walks hand-in-hand with ignorance for the law (“legal illiteracy”). 

On May 4, Medvedev signed a document awkwardly titled “The Fundamentals of State Policy on Developing Legal Awareness and Culture of the Citizens.”  One of the stated goals of this document is to educate Russian citizens about their legal rights.  An important part of the project will be creating a system of legal assistance, including free legal services.

The “Fundamentals” go to the heart of the problem by attacking both “legal illiteracy” (by educating Russians about their rights) and “legal nihilism” (by helping them execute these rights).  Unfortunately, this project suffers from the same problem as many of Medvedev’s other judicial reform initiatives: it is a long-term endeavor whose benefits will become apparent only in the future, after a lengthy and almost inevitably sloppy process of implementation.

The fact that the president’s legal crusade does not elicit enthusiastic support from Russian bureaucracy is hardly surprising.  More surprising — and depressing — is the fact that Medvedev’s reforms are often ridiculed by the country's liberal intelligentsia, which prefers to accuse the president of “talking the talk, but not walking the walk.”  What exactly the president is supposed to do to prove that he is “walking the walk,” is not clear.  One frequent suggestion is to fire Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or one or two of the supposedly corrupt members of his cabinet; the legal grounds for such an action, however, are never articulated.

For many Medvedev’s critics, the real situation in Russian courts appears to be completely inconsequential: the only legal issue that matters to them is the guilty verdict in the second KhodorkovskyLebedev trial.  Their approach to establishing the rule of law in Russia is quite peculiar: on the one hand, they call on the president to ensure the independents of courts; on the other, they criticize Medvedev for not preventing the guilty verdict by the Khamovnichesky Court.  How can Medvedev win?  

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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22 Responses to Presumption of Failure

  1. Very much agreed. The logic of the liberal intelligentsia is confounding. They really do seem to believe that the program should be:
    Step 1: Free MBK
    Step 2: Fire Putin
    Step 3: ???
    Step 4: Justice, freedom, European living standards!
    Should they ever gain significant political influence Russia will not be long for this world.

  2. Eugene says:

    Thanks Anatoly,
    Yes, “establishing European living standards” is my favorite part of the PARNAS’s program. You click the button, you got “standards.” Why will the Kremlin not push this button?

  3. Luis Alcalá says:

    Dear Eugene :
    What do we mean european living standard? Ihe corruption is extended by the whole Europe, two German presidents previous to Merkel have carried on dirty business based on his influence, Chirac of France is in the courts, of Berlusconi better not to speak, and that to say about Greece, Portugal or Spain?
    In Russia at least the government fights against the corruption publicly and high charges like governors are in the jail. In Spain the ancient ministers and Presidents have been imputed of serious crimes in the press and nothing happens absolutely. An example between thousands. Elected mayoress of Alicante has just been a woman who has accepted builders’ gifts from cars to trips in yacht and nothing happens, in Spain nothing ever happens.
    The third person of the opposition camp, another woman, also has been bribed, but the judge has said that as more than three years have spent the crime it has expired.!
    North American, so praised justice, it is more or less just according to the lawyer that you could pay.
    I believe that Russia has a problem that is reflected in many ambiences, it is his inferiority complex with regard to other advanced countries, and must overcome it. the “intelligence” is one of the sectors most sick with this complex. Of course the communism is one of the causes of this complex but, on having traveled more, the new generations will go overcoming it little by little and will see that the field of the neighbor is not more green than his.

  4. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Dear Luis,
    Thanks for your as always interesting comments. Well, I’m not going to deny that corrupted officials exist in practically any country. Incidentally, right now, there is a corruption trial in Boston where the former speaker of MA parliament is accused (and will most likely be convicted) of taking a $5 million bribe for steering a state contract. Ironically, this is the third former MA speaker in the row that goes on trial for some crime/misdemeanor.
    And yet, you can do business in MA. Two years ago, my wife opened a business. This took her 30 min and cost her ~50 bucks in fees. That was it. The problem in Russia is that you can’t do business without paying systematic bribes on every occasion. That’s why Medvedev frames the figth against corruption as an ECONOMIC issue — and I’m completely agree with him.
    And when about 1/5 of the military budget gets stolen, this is a security issue as well.
    I don’t think that any of the countries that you mentioned face something even close to that.
    Best Regards,

  5. Something I have noticed in Russian coverage is an absolutism of judgement. Either some government proposal is 100% successful immediately or it is 100% failed immediately. We’ve seen this since the Gorbachev years and it continues today: Gorbachev can do nothing to change the system etc etc.
    But that is absurd: in real life everything is incremental and the real question is whether some progress is being made towards the intended aim. One can reasonably argue whether it is enough progress or whether it actually is progress but it is simply childish to say that “nothing is happening”.
    Of course absolutism is usually the product of a political pre-judgement which is left unstated. Here it would be something like “Putinism is about control of theft; Medvedev is Putin’s puppet; therefore an anti-corruption program is predestined to immediate failure”. With those assumptions, you don’t need any facts. Neither do you need to justify the assumptions. And, hey presto!, another op-ed about The Russian Failure writes itself.
    And let us not forget laziness — it’s much easier to write that it’s all a failure illustrating your pre-conception with a couple of examples de jour and a quote or two from the usual people, than to go through the boring and difficult process of checking court decisions. Most of the Russian coverage we see is disgracefully slothful.
    You also raise another good point: if Medvedev is truly trying to emplace rule of law, he can’t use telephone justice whenever he wants to. He has to start from here to get to there. Which, of course, is one of the reasons why it will take so long: all Medvedev in his two terms can do is start to lay a foundation.
    Finally, it’s not as if we in the West are stainless steel incorruptible. Our corruption is more polite and discreet.

  6. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Patrick,
    I agree with you. As a lawyer, Medvedev began addressing the issue of corruption from the legal point of view. As I understand, just a few years ago, there was no legal definition of corruption in the Russian criminal code. Medvedev has introduced it. True, defining corruption is much easier than to actually putting it down. But doing the latter without having the former is, well…they were fighing corruption under Stalin as well, were they not?
    I suspect that many liberals criticize Medvedev exactly for the purpose to damage him, because Putin is their preferred candidate for presidency. The notorious Lilia Shevtsova has put it very straight:
    “Paradoxical though it may sound, prolonging Medvedev’s time in office could deal an even greater blow to hopes for liberalization than would Putin’s return to the Kremlin. The impression that the Russian leader will impose reform from above will only demoralize society and weaken political protests.”
    She’s lying of course. The real reason is that any progress Medvedev’s is making in liberalization of Russia diminishes the need for “limousine liberals” like her. She and her buddies do want Putin back: it’s their best chance to have a fat paycheck for the next 6 years.

  7. What a great quote from Shevstova, I hadn’t seen it.
    And what a trip down memory lane she gives us: “The worse, the better”.

  8. Eugene Ivanov says:

    From her recent WP article:
    Yes, I love this line too. Sounds very bolshevistic to me: you should wish the defeat to your own government.
    What a nice group of closet bolsheviks/leninists do they have in Moscow: Shevtsova, Kasparov, Nemtsov…

  9. Well….
    if we’re quoting Lenin (as she is, after all) I am frequently reminded of this from him in a letter to Gorkiy in 1919
    “the educated classes, the
    lackeys of capital, who consider themselves the brains of the
    nation. In fact they are not its brains but its shit.”

  10. Eugene Ivanov says:

    With certain mental effort, you can consider this line as a case of self-deprecating humor:)

  11. Yes, I love this line too. Sounds very bolshevistic to me: you should wish the defeat to your own government.
    If you recall, Patrick, we discussed this Bolshevik angle here. 😉

  12. Luis Alcalá says:

    Hallo again :
    I believe that the countries can differ according to the level in which we find the corruption and the intensity of this one.
    In general in the western countries the corruption is not at small level, guards of traffic, offices of licenses, etc, but at the medium and high level. For example if a construction firm one wants a part of a highway it knows that he must pay a bribe to someone. that also happens in USA. Let’s remember all movies about police officers and licenses of restaurants in New York. Nevertheless in USA, and in the Anglo-Saxon countries, the rapidity with which the justice acts if the bribe is known is notable, in other countries like Spain or Italy the justice or it does not act or it is very slow.
    To work in the United States is a separate world, the rapidity with which it is possible to open a business and to gain money with it if one works is one of the reasons for which it is the first economy of the world. I have always said that the best place to work is USA but to live I prefer Europe.
    To eliminate the small corruption in Russia, the big one I believe that it is impossible, it is a question of time, of economic elevation of the middle and low class and especially of civil education and that, from a deeply corrupt country as it is Spain that has exported corruption to almost the whole America it is very slow and difficult. For that the declarations of the politicians although they seem vain are important and even more the examples. For it seeing a governor in the jail, in Russia or in USA it is good for the society. In Spain you will not see it never.
    The problem, and again I agree with you, is the fact that for the economy the small corruption is almost more harmful than the big one since it inhibits to many small business of beginning and to grow, and many times the small business create more jobs that the big ones.
    Best regards.

  13. Eugene Ivanov says:

    And speaking of Kasparov, he reminds me of Lenin at the end of Ilyich’s European emigration: paranoid and angry.

  14. Hello Eugene,
    If not already seen, here’s an article concerning someone who has been associated with Lilia Shevtsova:
    I consider the: all things considered, he’s a plus factor…. to reflect the ongoing limits:
    I note an open letter he signed:
    Note the contents of that letter and who signed it.
    As a comparison, this open letter didn’t include him:
    Like Condoleezza Rice – Michael McFaul doesn’t seem like someone so committed to a negative stance towards Russia like some others. In fact, some years ago on an NPR show, he answered me by saying that he doesn’t often agree with Zbigniew Brzezinski. Having said that, once again note the open letter he signed versus the one that he wasn’t a party to.
    When push comes to shove, some are prone to going in a certain direction unlike others.
    Like I said, so much can be easily done to improve the coverage. Faulting English language mass media, academia and mass body politic is limited when not noting some Russian government involved media/PR ventures.

  15. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks for your comments and the links (yes, I saw the first one). I think that the “past” McFaul, an academic, and the “present,” a Russia advisor/to become Ambassador, have different deliverables. The first had to deliver books, the second results. I feel that explains certain changes in McFaul’s attitude we’ve been witnessing.
    McFaul must be deeply interested in the success of his mission in Moscow as the reset is one of the few real Obama’s achievements in foreign policy. Should Obama not be re-elected, McFaul will be gone from Moscow soon. This very thought should make him “pragmatic” enough not to irritate his hosts too much.

  16. Hi back Eugene,
    You might recall a JRL promoted piece from several years back by Anders Aslund, who called for the open overthrow of the Putin regime (as he termed it), inclusive of street protests.
    This was written when Aslund and McFaul were both still at Carnegie, which was the recipient (at least claimed by some) of a half million dollars from Khodorkovsky. I sensed that Asdlund’s commentary was even a bit too much for Carnegie and that he would not likely be with them much longer – only to latch on with Jamestown Foundation/Jamestown Foundation leaning operations. This is exactly what happened.
    I also recall Anatol Lieven writing a piece on certain influences having a wrongly applied influence in the American decision making on Russia. This article came out just as Lieven was leaving Carnegie.
    Lieven and Aslund tend to reflect different stances on Russia. The idea that McFaul/Carnegie is a good middle ground reminds me of how some view Strobe Talbott as being soft on Russia – when he has exhibited the opposite – like a Carnegie discussion from a few years back, when he tagged teamed with Brzezinski in belittling Russian concerns. Another example was how Talbott carried on during the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia.

  17. Poppy says:

    Dear Eugene,
    I believe, a couple of very basic points can help.
    First and foremost, every Governor has to have his own color, his unique signature. One MBA blockhead choosed to fight terrorism. Chappie from Leningrad decided it’s to be corruption – for him.
    Fighting things like this is as useless (you never win) as popular (it’s someting that we care about and it’s something that we don’t care too much, like mortgages or jobs) and safe (always gives you thing to talk about).
    Next, corruption is similar to terrorism in a sense – it has no national boundaries, it exists everywhere, it’s just the national flavour that makes it recognizeable as such. So if Medvedev decides to fight corruption – why bother, let him have his entertainment.
    It’s not gonna harm anybody anyway,- at least until he commands to bomb Moscow 🙂

  18. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Hi Mike,
    On occasions, I’m reluctant to criticize people for what they said/did a while ago. True, the great analyst Aslund began predicting (starting in 2003) that the bloody Putin regime would be gone “soon.” Well, if the Peterson Institute wants to employ such “analysts,” it’s their problem. At least, I haven’t heard anything like that from Aslund recently.
    But McFaul never said anything like that. Characteristically, his nomination was met largely positively in Moscow. If Moscow is happy/content with McFaul, why should we not?

  19. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Hi Poppy!
    I ABSOLUTELY love your positive attitude toward Russian leaders. It’s my opinion too that Medvedev’s judicial reforms at least won’t hurt.
    The only question though is why so many folks in Russia feel so unhappy? I’ll tell you why: they suffer from a split personality. They want to be democrats and respect “the rule of law.” But in fact they are Bolsheviks and want a Leader to govern by iron hand. The fact that Medvedev is trying (at least, trying) to rule “by the rule of law” (beginning with introducing missing laws) pisses them off.

  20. Hi again Eugene,
    Agree on the your stated difference between AA and MM.
    The approval of MM is relative to the current situation, which I sense we both agree can be improved upon.

  21. Poppy says:

    My dear Eugene, you knew, you knew it!
    Russian leaders are not different at ll – it’s just the language they speak makes them Russian.
    Now re your questions – I guess it’s all about the duplicity of the way our world is, aka Russian soul. They love drinking and hate hangover. They probably are more interested in the final outcome and care less about the way to get to it.
    I appreciate your approach to uncovering the meaning of life, but it’s not the democracy, believe you me.
    After all, unlike your congressman, your boss, your girlfriend, your newspaper, your spirutual leader, your teacher, your newspaper – did I ever lie to you?
    Peace, Dude.

  22. Pingback: The matter of trust |

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