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A Culture of Legal Nihilism


Last year, two Russian oligarchs, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, both nearing the end of lengthy jail terms on corruption charges, were tried and convicted a second time. Observers of the Russian business scene largely agreed that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev had been engaged in shady business practices. They seemed to have done no worse than many of the nation’s other oligarchs, but Khodorkovsky had done something unforgivable: he had sharply criticized Putin and mounted a political campaign against him. The second trial drew harsh criticism around the world from journalists and political leaders. Secretary of State Clinton leveled an unusually harsh charge at the Russian government over the trial, saying it raised “serious questions about selective prosecution—and about the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations.”

Last month, Russia’s legal community was rocked by a dramatic disclosure when an aide to the judge who presided over the Khodorkovsky-Lebedev trial disclosed in an interview with Gazeta.ru that the judge had been forced to issue a judgment that was not his own:

When you have these sorts of political cases, these things where someone has given an order, they are targeted in advance toward a specific result. And if you refuse that means you’re out of your court. And that’s that. I can tell you that the entire judicial community understands very well that this case has been ordered, that this trial has been ordered.

In an interview with Russian television’s Channel One, the judge involved quickly denied his assistant’s accusations. But the accusations are being widely accepted. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev:

I fully trust her [the judge’s aide]. People can’t stand it anymore – she saw what was happening with her own eyes. This fact should make up a subject of investigation. There’s no weaseling your way out when you find yourselves in a situation like that. The most assured road to salvation is to tell everything the way it really was.

When lawyer Dmitri Medvedev stood as the establishment’s candidate for the Russian presidency in 2008, he presented a well-honed and passionate critique of the struggle for the rule of law in his homeland. Russia had a “culture of legal nihilism that in its cynicism has no equal anywhere on the European continent,” he said. “We need to understand clearly: if we want to become a civilized state, first of all we need to become a lawful one.” He spelled out what this meant in considerable detail, starting with an overhaul of legal education, better guarantees for the independence of judges, and a more powerful media. Even many of those who had their reservations about Medvedev were taken by this particular criticism and the apparent earnestness with which it was delivered. Now Russia is presented with the most vivid demonstration of its culture of legal nihilism to appear in recent memory, and it happened on President Medvedev’s watch and serving his ostensible interests.

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