Vladimir Putin and the Law

Vladimir Putin has been busy — he recently published his seventh pre-election article in two months. These lengthy articles cover a dizzying range of issues, from ethnic integration to foreign policy. As Mr. Putin’s re-election (or “reappointment” as some have derisively commented) looms, these articles provide a tantalizing window into what to expect from Mr. Putin’s impending third term as president. Some are predictable: Mr. Putin will continue to assert Russia’s interests in the face a dangerous global order and enact policies that will ensure Russia’s stable democratic development. One theme, however, stands out as potentially rather different: the surprising emphasis that Mr. Putin – himself a trained lawyer – places on the role of law in political and economic change.

Reliance on the law has typically been short-lived amongst Russian leaders. From Lenin to Yeltsin, Russian leaders have strategically used legal rhetoric but have ultimately jettisoned legal limitations in the relentless pursuit of their political and economic goals. Mr. Putin’s emphasis on what he has previously called the “dictatorship of law” hints at a different approach, explicitly drawing on a deep tradition of conservative Russian legal thought that begins with the nineteenth century philosopher Boris Chicherin and that persists today in the current chairman of the Russian Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin. This legalistic form of political thought helped underpin the abolition of serfdom and the constitutional movement of the late Tsarist period. The promise of these reforms was ultimately unfulfilled. Will Mr. Putin finally fulfill this promise?

A Dictatorship of the Law

In his opening article on January 17, Mr. Putin proclaims that the Russian state will not allow itself to be swept up in growing forces of instability, but instead will seek to control these forces by actively “setting the rules of the game.” He continues: Russia will “muscle up” by “being open to change” through state sanctioned procedures and rules.

In the domestic arena, he writes, a focus on legality will help Russia avoid its “recurring problem” of straining for “sudden change” and promote “well thought-out, considered reforms.” In his article entitled “Democracy and the Quality of Government,” he emphasizes this point with a quote from a late Tsarist constitutional thinker, Pavel Novgordtsev, who warned that “the proclamation of liberty and universal suffrage” do not “magically” lead to democracy but instead toward “oligarchy or anarchy.” Mr. Putin therefore demands that the opposition employ “democratic” – and here he means state-sanctioned – means for change. To encourage this kind of lawful dispute resolution, he proposes expanding the rights of public organizations to sue government officials and publicizing court proceedings. He also argues that the Russian state should act in a law-based manner. The Russian government almost collapsed in the 1990s, he argues, by yielding to “the temptation of illusions” and a lawless “fortune favors the brave” attitude. But since his rise to power in 2000, adherence to clear rules of the game has helped secure Russia’s stable development in a “democratic, constitutional manner.” Adherence to the law, he argues, must continue or Russia’s democratic development will be put at risk.

In the international realm, Mr. Putin argues that the “basic principles of international law” are under attack. In his most recent article entitled “Russia and the Changing World,” Mr. Putin argues that certain countries – insinuating the United States and its NATO allies – are violating “international law and state sovereignty” under the banner of universal human rights. This disrespect for international law is inevitably “more costly than anticipated.” Mr. Putin’s cautionary tale is Libya, where he argues that NATO’s export of “gunship democracy” in the name of humanitarian principles has fostered an even worse outcome: lawlessness and anarchy. This “Libyan scenario,” he argues, must not be allowed to repeat itself or it will lead to a moral and legal void in the international system where every country must seek nuclear weapons to ensure its security. For Mr. Putin, international conflict must be resolved through the United Nations and be grounded in its key founding principle: state sovereignty.

From Putinism to Legalism?

What evidence exists that Mr. Putin’s recent bout of legalism is more than just a convenient strategy to limit both U.S. power and the burgeoning opposition movement? Mr. Putin has paid far more attention to legal reform than his predecessor Boris Yeltsin. Upon taking over the presidency in 2000, Mr. Putin’s first three major policy speeches addressed the need for legal reform. He has followed through on this emphasis, making considerable progress toward updating the contradictory Russian legal system, including pushing through a new criminal code. Furthermore, he has been surprisingly open to implementing human rights norms from the European Convention on Human Rights in the Russian courts. In fact, under Putin, decisions by the European Court of Human Rights – where cases against the Russian state make up more than a quarter of the docket – have been implemented successfully (with some notable exceptions). Perhaps the best example is Russia’s permanent ban on the death penalty to bring its law in line with European standards.

These limited steps, however, do not suggest that Mr. Putin is open to a legal system that might check government power. Instead, Mr. Putin’s regime has followed the Russian tradition of using law to punish its opponents. Two prominent Constitutional Court judges recently lost their seats for accusing the Putin regime of infringing on the independence of the judiciary. Finally, human rights violations by the Russian state are still rampant: Over a quarter of all cases in the European Court of Human Rights are filed against the Russian state.

As he eyes another six years in power, only Mr. Putin knows whether he will expand on these limited steps toward a law-based state. Strengthening legality by seriously expanding access to courts and encouraging real judicial independence could help Mr. Putin adapt to the turbulent and unpredictable years to come. Furthermore, it could also help him achieve his stated goals of decreasing Russian corruption and boosting foreign investment. In deciding whether his appeals to legalism are cynical or real, Mr. Putin should heed the advice of Russia’s leading legal philosopher: “The moderate direction can only find its way when it is linked with the government. If the government does not support it, it must give way to another approach.”