Geopolitics: Russia's culture of impunity
Russia's president Dmitry Medvedev talks tough about law and corruption affecting investment. But major crimes go unpunished and corruption has increased since he took power. GIS expert, Professor Stefan Hedlund investigates.
DMITRY Medvedev has made deliberate efforts to present himself as a champion of the rule of law during his first term as president of the Russian Federation.
His frequent talk of modernisation, together with his much-publicised blogging and use of Twitter, have added to the personal profile of a president who is bent on change.
But the fact remains that corruption in Russia, by all accounts, is getting worse since Mr Medvedev, a lawyer, came to power in 2008. This indicates that talk and image-making is not enough.
Mr Medvedev’s frustration has been manifest in frequent complaints he makes about a variety of Russian ills affecting both the quality of governance and the climate for investment. At the core of his complaints is his favoured reference to Russian ‘legal nihilism’ implying that Russian officials recognise no obligation to be bound by law.
The need for legal boundaries and the enforcement of law for the good of society is not new. It can be traced back thousands of years to a conflict between the insistence of Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, that society must be governed on the basis of a set of laws and the Chinese Confucians that morality must govern. It is the latter that has given rise to the sense that laws may be ignored.
In the Russian case, a tradition of jurisprudence, which consistently viewed the law as an instrument in the hands of those in power, was entrenched in the 1860s, by a broader movement of nihilism which rejected all authority and led to terrorism.
The legacy of a judiciary viewed as an integral part of executive power, and more or less devoid of any sense of legitimacy in the eyes of the population, was the backbone of the Soviet order. It has remained sadly prominent in Russian development following the collapse of the USSR. It would be hard to find an obstacle to legal and economic reform which has been more challenging to resolve.
The practical manifestation has been what some refer to as a ‘culture of impunity’, where major breaches of the law can be carried out without any risk of serious consequences.
The spate of unprosecuted killings of more than 300 journalists since 1993 – international journalist organisations claim Russia is one of the deadliest countries in the world for working journalists - is a case in point.
While it would in all likelihood be incorrect to suggest that the Kremlin has been directly involved, it is clearly the case that perpetrators of these – and other equally heinous crimes – have calculated correctly that the probability of being caught and prosecuted is negligible. Russia is claimed to be one of the worst countries for solving murders.
Equally important, the two trials against Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former CEO and main owner of Yukos Oil, may be viewed as a disturbing movement from the selective administration of justice. Mr Khodorkovsky was sentenced alone for a crime committed by many. He was convicted for a crime he clearly could not have committed.
Yukos Oil was one of the largest and most successful Russian companies between 2000 and 2003 before the Russian government claimed $27 billion in unpaid tax, sending the company bankrupt.
President Medvedev has spoken many times about the need to respect the law and how nobody must stand above it. We can only conclude that as a champion of the rule of law, he has a lot left to prove.