Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has declared its commitment to values that the United States also subscribes to: democracy, human rights, and free enterprise. A fundamental American belief is that the rule of law, including separation of powers and judicial independence, is needed in order to achieve and protect these values.
What has been the Russian understanding of the rule of law? What is the current status of the rule of law in Russia, and what developments can be expected in light of Russia's perspective, Anglo-American legal history and the European legal systems that have most influenced the Russian legal system?
DANIEL ROTHSTEIN: Very quickly, I'd like to try to set the stage for our topic today. Law follows the lead of political and economic events. And the events in Russia over the past sixteen years have been tumultuous: the break-up of the Soviet political and economic system, separatist wars, the creation of a new market economy, mass privatization, hyper-inflation leading to the collapse of the financial system in 1998, recovery and dynamic economic growth over the past ten years, and, through it all, intense competition and fighting over property and over political power, including substantial renationalization of natural resource assets over the past several years. All this would be too much for any legal system to digest, I think, especially a new legal system in a country with little historical experience with the rule of law.
In a speech in January, Mr. Medvedev, now the President-elect, said: “Russia is a country of legal nihilism. Not a single European country can boast of such contempt for the law. We buy pirated disks without blinking. Contracts for many millions are written on a slip of paper with three clauses, and payment in cash. The organs of state administration are corrupt.”1
Historically, one of the common explanations for the weakness of the rule of law in Russia has been an authoritarian political tradition. Mr. Sergei Ivanov, the First Deputy Prime Minister and one of the main people named as a potential successor to the presidency, had this to say in an interview with the Financial Times last April. The Financial Times asked, “What's your reaction when people talk about ‘Kremlin Incorporated?’” Mr. Ivanov: “You need to understand our history, our mentality. Russia is a huge country, and mentally, unfortunately, the majority of the population as before relies on the Tsar. Our civil society is still weak. It can't be strong because only fifteen years have passed since it began to be created. Before then, you'll agree, there was not the slightest condition for it to be created. It is still very young.”2
The cover story on Russia in this week's Economist magazine reports, on the one hand, rule-of-law problems, concerns among foreign investors about corruption, and so forth. On the other hand, surveys report high investor satisfaction with the business and investment climate in Russia.3 At the same time, I don't think it's very controversial to say that Russia needs to strengthen the rule of law in order to solve basic economic problems, in order for the government to function, and in order for individual rights to be secured. So the question that I've asked our panelists to boldly speculate on is: how can the rule of law take root in such a big country going through such tremendous transformations, and in light of its history?
Thank you again for coming, panelists, and for contributing your time. In order of presentation: Jane Burbank from the NYU History Department has written extensively on the pre-revolutionary Russian legal system, and also to some extent about the Soviet legal system.
To Jane's left: Richard Wortman, from the Columbia University History Department, has written extensively on the Russian legal system and other aspects of pre-revolutionary Russia, in particular the legal reforms of 1864.