Op-Ed Contributor: Give Putin a Break

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After President Dmitry Medvedev's inauguration on May 7, Russia has successfully concluded its first "normal" presidential succession cycle, in which a healthy outgoing president voluntarily turned over power to a new popularly elected one.

This will be news to many in the West since most of the international media has failed to describe the inauguration of Russia's third president as anything other than a KGB plot. When the foreign press writes about Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, they have a nasty habit of reminding us all too often that he is "the former KGB spy," but it was precisely this treacherous spook who abided by the 15-year Constitution and left office -- something he promised to do for many years leading up to the election.

Moreover, we also read a lot from the international press that Medvedev is nothing more than Putin's puppet. The Economist, for example, told us that Putin, during a meeting with Medvedev after the presidential election, sat in the same chair he had used as president, or rather, "sank deep into his chair," while Medvedev "perched on the edge of his own."

In the good old days of the Cold War, it was standard for the press on Victory Day or May Day to mock the doddering leaders of the Soviet Union who clambered to the top of Lenin's mausoleum, from which the leaders' relative positions would be scrutinized by the media's Kremlinologists. The arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev, glasnost and perestroika interrupted this practice, however. Now, just before the clairvoyance of these Kremlinologists had totally atrophied, The Economist resurrects this arcane art. Given that the Russian word for chair is stul, perhaps The Economist will one day claim credit for this new voodoo -- "stulology."

Whether he deserved better or not, during his 100 months in office, Putin never had more than a few weeks of fair treatment from the international media. The reforms of the first years of Putin's administration introduced a 13 percent personal income tax, low corporate taxes, new labor and land laws, and, most significant, major reforms of the judiciary. Boris Yeltsin was unable to persuade the State Duma to enact any of these.

Many complain about Russia's corruption and lack of judicial independence. The progress the country's judicial system has achieved under Putin is not familiar outside Russia, since it has been consistently ignored in favor of stories that are more sensational. While Putin occasionally referred to the "dictatorship of the law," which I understood to mean the primacy of law, Medvedev, himself a law graduate and former member of the faculty at St. Petersburg State University, has placed particular emphasis on cleaning up the court system. In January, Medvedev started his attack on "legal nihilism" after he introduced the term to the public at a meeting of the Association of Russian Lawyers. Furthermore, Medvedev said, "We are well aware that no nondemocratic state has ever become truly prosperous."

There are two other significant events that followed Medvedev's call for an end of legal nihilism.

First, on May 12, the head of the Supreme Arbitration Court, Anton Ivanov, filed a request to have Lyudmila Maikova, the chairwoman of the Federal Arbitration Court in the Moscow District, suspended from her duties for "damaging the authority of the judicial branch and the reputation of the judiciary," Kommersant reported. Ivanov's request said Maikova, who had been on the bench in a number of legal disputes involving the city government, received help from City Hall in 2004 to swap her own apartment for two others and to buy another from a developer at less than market price.

An then, several days later, Yelena Valyavina, first deputy chairwoman of the Supreme Arbitration Court, testified in court that Valery Boyev, who was an adviser on personnel appointments in the former Putin administration, had threatened to damage her career in 2005 if she refused to reverse a ruling handed down against the Federal Property Fund involving Tolyattiazot, the country's biggest producer of ammonia.

On May 20, Medvedev called for an independent court system when he spoke at a Kremlin meeting with senior judges and legal officials. "[Unjust] decisions, as we all know, do happen and come as a result of different kinds of pressure, like telephone calls and -- there's no point in denying -- offers of money," Medvedev said.

As a lifelong fan of Kremlinology and a recent convert to stulology, I declare that this concatenation of events is not a coincidence. We could have some progress here.

Of course, there are problems for Medvedev if he is to instill respect for the law and overcome legal nihilism. Many powerful factions within the Kremlin -- siloviki and bureaucrats, to name a few -- may not easily follow Medvedev's lead. In Russia, as in the rest of the world, politically powerful people venture into illegal activities because they believe they will not be prosecuted.

Early in Putin's first term, commentators tellingly asked, "Putin is in office, but is he in control?" The infighting of Kremlin clans can be characterized as a knife fight without rules. Medvedev and Putin must always consider the interests of their Kremlin and White House constituencies, but they might be able to make some headway, particularly since Medvedev says he believes legal nihilism interferes with economic development.

There may be hope here. Is the glass half full? Given that the media do not give Russia objective coverage, we shall need to watch carefully, hope for the best and come to our own conclusions.

Bruce Bean is a lawyer who lived in Moscow from 1995 to 2003 and now teaches at Michigan State University Law School.