AALS “Hot Topics” Program: Russia’s “Dictatorship of Law”

I am glad to announce that the AALS Committee on Special Programs selected my proposal as a “Hot Topics” panel for the 2012 AALS Annual Meeting in Washington D.C. next month.  The program is called: “The Dictatorship of Law: The Khodorkovsky Case, Human Rights, and the Rule of Law in Russia.”  William Pomeranz, Deputy Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, will chair a panel that includes Kim Lane Scheppele (the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton), Bruce Bean (Michigan State University), Christopher Bruner (Washington and Lee University), Alexei Trochev (Nazarbayev University) and me.  The program will begin at 10:30 on Friday morning, January 6. 

Below is a description of the panel, which will occur (as perhaps a “hot topic” should) between two central events on the Russian calendar: the surprising results of yesterday’s parliamentary elections in Russia and presidential elections scheduled for March 4 that (at least until yesterday) everyone was saying would be certain to return now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to the presidency currently held by his protégé, Dmitrii Medvedev.

During his first campaign for President of Russia in February 2000, Vladimir Putin defined democracy as a “dictatorship of law.”  This was meant to signal a shift away from the perceived lawlessness of his immediate predecessor’s governance, and to feed the nostalgia for Soviet-era stability.  As Putin starts his gambit to return to the Russian presidency, this panel examines which half of that slogan will dominate the other.  Recent developments in the most well-known case in the courts of both Russia and the Council of Europe present an opportunity to do so at a pivotal moment not only in that case but for the future of the rule of law in Russia.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was the CEO of the Yukos Oil Company and the richest man in Russia when in 2003 he and his business partner, Platon Lebedev, were arrested and charged with crimes connected to Yukos, Russia’s most profitable and well-known private corporation.  They were convicted of fraud, causing property damage by deceit or breach of trust, and tax evasion and sentenced to eight years in prison.  Yukos was seized and sold to state-controlled companies.  In December 2010, as their sentences drew to a close, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were convicted by another court of embezzlement and money-laundering, charges arising out of the same time period and concerning the same corporate activities that were the basis for the first conviction.  On the eve of that verdict, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin informed a nationwide television audience that “a thief should sit in jail,” a reference to a well-known Soviet mini-series that would have been quite familiar to viewers (the quote continues: “… and people don’t care how I put him away.”).  In midsummer 2011, a Russian court upheld the verdict, extending the defendants’ sentences until 2016. 

A bit more on the tension this case embodies for Russian law and human rights after the break …

While Russian courts have repeatedly found against Yukos, Khodorkovsky, and his associates, the European Court of Human Rights has consistently found that their detention and trials worked numerous violations of the European Convention on Human Rights.  Four judgments have been handed down by the Strasbourg Court, all against Russia.  More are pending.  The most recent decision, handed down in late September 2011, held that some of Russia’s actions to seize control of Yukos violated the Convention.  The Court reserved the determination of damages to a later date, thus setting the stage for a confrontation that has the potential to sunder the already tense relationship between Russia and the Council of Europe.

In the shadow of the Russian presidential election scheduled for March, the panel will examine this tension and the mirror this case holds up to reflect the state of the rule of law in Russia.  Russian membership in the Council of Europe has often been a catalyst for legal reform.  European judgments concerning this most political of cases have unsettled an already rocky relationship.  Russian President Dmitrii Medvedev will shortly receive a report on this case from his Council on Civil Society and Human Rights.  The Russian Constitution grants him a pardon power.  What can, what should, what will he do?

In the same remarks in which he vowed to create a “dictatorship of law,” Putin asked “what then should be the relationship with the so-called oligarchs?  The same as with anyone else.  The same as with the owner of a small bakery or a shoe-repair shop.”  This panel will reflect on the impact of Khodorkovsky’s case on the rights of “anyone else” in Russia.


You may also like...

3 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    As a practical matter, and assuming Putin will win the next presidential contest: would it be feasible for Medvedev to issue a pardon unless he were willing to risk similar treatment to Khodorovsky, once his term expires?

    BTW, thanks especially for bringing Putin’s evocative phrase to light. I’m going to be teaching an undergraduate law seminar about the nature of democracy next year — that one phrase could be good for a whole session.

  2. Matt says:

    A.J.- you might also want to include the other expression for Putinism, “Managed Democracy”. There’s more management than democracy in it, and not a very happy form of management, but it had appeal to many people in Russia for a time. (Less now, maybe, given the recent election results.)

    Some problems w/ pardoning Khodorkovsky would include that it would probably be pretty unpopular, and that because it’s actually not implausible that he’s guilty of most of what he’s charged with. He’s often presented as some good guy in the west, but he was just as much a crook as the rest of the oligarchs. (Sometimes this is presented as meaning that he simply took advantage of inadequate law, and while that’s surely true, it barely touches the surface.) And, while he surely got an unfair trial, that doesn’t distinguish him any interesting way from the vast majority of defendants in Russia. (For comparison, when Eduard Limonov was sent to jail on obviously false charges some years ago, it was hardly covered in the west, and when poor, unknown NBP members are sent to prison for minor offenses on terms not much better than Khodorkovsky’s, it doesn’t register at all. They are, from my perspective, fairly unsympathetic, but this leads me to think the issue w/ Khodorkovsky is more one of PR and elite sympathy than deep issues of justice.)

  3. Jordan J. Paust says:

    Dictatorship indeed!