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If there is anyone out there who thinks that President Dmitry Medvedev is serious about his stated intention of rooting out “legal nihilism” and strengthening the rule of law in Russia, here is one more chance to see how he acts instead of merely listening to how he speaks.

Today the Presidium of the Supreme Court upheld a two-year-old finding by the European Court of Human Rights that the arrest and detention in 2003 of former Yukos financial-arm head Platon Lebedev was illegal.

It is unclear whether the decision will have any impact on Lebedev’s subsequent conviction. Most likely, the courts will find a twisted reasoning to assert that his 2005 conviction on embezzlement and tax-evasion charges stands (I’m reminded of a court decision after Medvedev’s presidential election that found that media coverage during the campaign was “equal” because all the candidates running were mentioned – ignoring the well-documented fact that Medvedev was “mentioned” many times more often than his rivals – who were they anyway? – and much more positively).

At the court hearing today, a deputy prosecutor-general argued that since the violations were “procedural,” the court should simply reprimand the individual prosecutors and judges who made the illegal decisions and move on. This may well be an indication of which way this ruling will play out, since Medvedev has shown a penchant lately for ostentatiously dismissing some officials every time something goes wrong (after all, he has to do this, since the prosecutors and courts are so corrupted, they can’t be trusted to handle, say, the investigation into a night-club fire in Perm without presidential intervention).

As a result of Medvedev’s decisive interventions, a lot of officials who probably should be sitting in jail are simply sent home, and many of them will likely turn up in nice positions sooner rather than later.

Medvedev’s approach to real systemic issues – whether because he is uninterested in undertaking meaningful reform or because he is powerless to do so – is almost always to tweak or bandage or fire. Analyst Nikolai Petrov pointed this out in a piece in “The Moscow Times” yesterday on Medvedev’s proposed tweaks to the system of appointing (rather than electing) heads of federation subjects. “Medvedev is correct in saying the present system…is ineffective,” Petrov writes. “The solution, however, is not to patch over the problems in the system, but to change the system entirely.”

Systemic problems demands systemic solutions.

Within hours of today’s Supreme Court ruling, (where Medvedev debuted his much-commented “Forward, Russia!” manifesto in September) threw down the gauntlet for the young president. The ruling, wrote in an editorial, is a “historic chance” for Medvedev to begin the process of ending the so-called Basmanny justice – named after the Moscow district court that is most known for handing down legally outrageous, but consistently Kremlin-friendly verdicts.

The editorial points out to the president the key, obvious point: “It is precisely the Russian authorities that are the main source of legal nihilism, by going directly against the law in every possible way from the redistribution of property to the mass of day-to-day crimes of the siloviki against the population to the alteration of the country’s political system.” It asserts that the entire Yukos affair – the cases against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Lebedev, and many others – is characteristic of “the Putin-style dealings with the law enforcement organs, where were transformed into an instrument for divvying up business to the advantage of a narrow circle close to power or occupying official posts under the political cover of the head of the government.”

Although today’s decision, so far, appears merely to be a sop to the Strasbourg court, it is a chance for Medvedev to (finally!) move from “rhetorical pronouncements about the need to modernize the country to real actions.”

The article concludes that Medvedev can begin by directing the Duma (and let’s not be coy and pretend there is a separation of legislative and executive power in Russia) to ratify the 14th Protocol of the European Court of Human Rights, which is aimed at “preventing violations at national level and improving domestic remedies.” Russia is the only Council of Europe member country that has not ratified the 2004 reform and ratification has been blocked by the Kremlin precisely because Russia consistently loses cases brought before the court because of the depredations of Basmanny justice.

But don’t hold your breath. Medvedev has let dozens of “litmus tests” of his liberal views pass since he became president. There is no reason to think things will be different this time, especially since the matter goes straight to the heart of Russia’s unaccountable and thoroughly corrupted political system, one that needs more than just a good tweaking.

-- Robert Coalson

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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