It is difficult to measure the impartiality of Russian courts, a crucial indicator of the country’s democratic development. To what extent do Russian judges and juries decide cases purely on the facts and according to the law? It is impossible to know. Instead, we turn to bits of anecdotal evidence for clues on how the Russian judiciary is holding up 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union.
One useful way to take stock of Russian courts is to look at how often those Russians who have a choice – the rich and mobile – choose to settle their disputes outside Russia. Lately, as documented in a recent article in the Guardian, a number of wealthy Russians are seeking compensation in London courts. Litigants include media tycoon Alexander Lebedev and Russia’s only female billionaire, Elena Baturina, the wife of former Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov.
The highest profile case pits Russian billionaire, politician and Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich against Boris Berezovsky, a once well-connected multi-millionaire who left Russia in 2001 and never returned. Berezovsky accuses Abramovich of swindling him out of nearly $6 billion in connection with their mutual interests in the Russian oil company Sibneft. The court proceedings are less interesting for the money at stake than the way it was obtained. As detailed in pieces in the New York Times and the Telegraph, the courtroom testimony offers a window on how an intricate web of personal relationships and loyalties were far more important than legally binding contracts in protecting property worth billions.
The disregard for Russia’s legal system as a guarantor of property rights comes through clearly in the trial. That is a concern for anyone tracking Russia’s democratic development, including Russia’s top leaders. During his first presidential election campaign in 2000, former president Vladimir Putin acknowledged the disregard that Russians have for the law. Putin memorably pledged to remedy that by creating a “dictatorship of the law”. When Dmitry Medvedev successfully ran for president in 2008, he denounced the same problem, calling it “legal nihilism,” a term that became closely identified with his presidency. Now, with another presidential election set for this March, it is worth watching closely how much of a campaign issue the rule of law in Russia becomes.