(Alena Ledeneva, University College London) - With the arrival of a new president, Dmitry Medvedev, what hope is there for establishing the rule of law in Russia, an issue so crucial for the country's future?
Following up on his pre-election promise, this week Medvedev declared a crackdown on so-called ‘telephone justice' - the practice of exerting pressure, making informal requests, or offering money for certain decisions in courts.
‘Telephone justice' originated in Soviet times. When a top official wanted a particular result in court, he would simply phone the judge and tell him what the party line was. Long after the Communist Party ceased to exist, pressure on courts continued - in spite of reforms to the judicial system in the 1990s and Putin's 40% pay-rise for judges, and financial support of courts.
But after almost two decades of reforms, the situation has only improved to a limited degree. Medvedev's priority today is, as he said a couple of days ago, to eliminate "the practice of unfair decisions made through connections or for money" and to "make the judicial system genuinely independent from the executive and legislative branches of power."
How much progress was in fact made under Putin? There was certainly some. Although administrative pressure on the judiciary, corruption, and selective enforcement of the law featured prominently in the media, especially during the Yukos court cases, research shows improvements in the judicial system in Russia, and an increasing use of the courts. There were even court cases explicitly featuring the problem of ‘telephone justice', in itself a huge leap forward.
In September 2005 a woman was sentenced for attempting to influence a court decision by making a telephone call about a property in Central Moscow, pretending to be calling on behalf of the Chairman of the Supreme Arbitration Court.
Back then, in an interview with Parlamentskaya Gazeta, the chairperson of the Moscow District Federal Arbitration Court, Liudmila Maikova, was asked: "How strong is ‘telephone justice' in Russia? Is it hard for the court to be independent?" She dismissed the idea as gossip and myth.
Today Maikova herself is facing suspension, charged with unethical behavior. There is also an ongoing defamation case against a journalist who accused a Kremlin official of "making orders to the Supreme Arbitration Court" in a radio broadcast. This 2008 case is unprecedented: in her witness statement, the deputy chairman of the Supreme Arbitration Court has actually confirmed the fact of influence on the part of the presidential administration. The hearings continue.
How widespread is telephone justice in courts in Russia in general? In an all-Russia survey, almost one third of respondents seemed satisfied with the workings of the courts (12% replied that all court decisions are made by law and 18% replied that only a few judges take bribes and are subject to pressure).
More than half of the respondents, however, acknowledged the susceptibility of judges either to corrupt payments or other forms of pressure: 25% of respondents said that judges take bribes as a rule, although there are also principled judges, and a further 20% said that even these principled judges would react to pressure on particular cases. Among the respondents, 7% said that "all court decisions are taken either for a bribe or under pressure ‘from above'." The remaining 18% were ‘don't knows'.
Legal experts who I interviewed in Russia largely agree on the following formula: although it is ridiculous to suggest that every court case in Russia is decided according to directives from above, means of influencing a particular case can be found when needed. In other words, pressure does not have to be pervasive to be fully effective.
Moreover the form of influence can be chosen according to the personality of a judge. Court chairmen have a variety of ways of dealing with non-compliant judges, known for their personal integrity. Importantly, direct forms of influence might not even be necessary where the dependence of judges on court chairmen facilitates self-censorship - the so-called ‘chilling effect.'
The difficulty in tackling ‘telephone justice' is that it relies upon informal rather than formal means - this is the point of the telephone call, as opposed to written communication. How can such a challenge be tackled by formal measures or legalistic reforms?
Medvedev's proposed working group will introduce new legislation and measures to push forward the judicial reforms such as ensuring the financial independence of courts from local authorities, providing security and social protection of judges, and eliminating administrative influences on judicial appointments and disciplinary procedures. Most of these measures were initiated before and haven't yet separated the judiciary from the executive branch of power. So will they work this time?
Well, there is a lesson that could be learnt from the deep-rooted phenomenon of ‘telephone justice' - the power of oral commands. Perhaps what Medvedev is really doing is turning the informal system against itself.
Just as Putin redefined the rules of the game for oligarchs by warning them not to meddle in politics in July 2000, Medvedev could be sending an ‘oral signal' not to meddle in courts from now on. \
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.