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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Law Remains on Paper




In Soviet times, there was an anecdote that went: A person goes to a lawyer and asks, "Do I have the right to ..." "You do," responds the lawyer, not even allowing him to finish the question. "And can I ..." "No."


From the time tsarism was overthrown, Soviet and later Russian authorities constantly appealed to the law. The Soviet Constitution of 1936 is widely considered to be one of the most democratic in the world. It advanced the same rights as those in the West and added many others. This remarkable constitution did not get in the way of the Stalinist terror, however. It flourished for more than 40 years and was replaced by General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev's far less democratic constitution of 1977. Unlike Stalin, Brezhnev did not practice mass shootings. It was the improvement of morals that led to the worsening of the law. Dissidents got up the courage to demand that constitutional norms be met, and the authorities found no better response than to change the norms.


In general, Russia still has many "good" laws which, the better they are, the worse they are carried out in practice. These laws concern housing and social rights and workers' relations. Officials in the Soviet Union took bribes more often for carrying out the law than for breaking it. It was often impossible to defend your rights in a direct way.


Disregard for the law has become part of the national culture. The only exception to this tradition was between 1990 and 1993 -- during former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and the first years after it -- when society sincerely tried to learn to live by the rule of law.


The experiment of living life according to the law ended in 1993 with the dissolution of the Supreme Soviet and start of a small civil war. It is telling that in the heat of the moment, the liberal part of Russian society followed national tradition to a tee by welcoming the president's actions. It preferred expediency to the rule of law.


How can liberal reform be carried out in Russia under such legal consciousness. The firing on the parliament gives us some idea of the prospects for such reform.


After the constitution of 1993 was adopted, government ideologues solemnly promised that it would last at least 200 years, like the U.S. Constitution. It is hard to imagine the founding fathers of the United States making any such self-contented promises. But such a high appraisal of their own constitution in Russia does not at all mean that the government bodies are prepared to be governed by it. Rather, the government bureaucracy sees the constitution as a political rather than legal document. It is not intended to regulate the actions of the authorities, but to legitimize power itself.


The many articles of the constitution and various laws on the rights of citizens turned out to be powerless in helping the inhabitants of Chechnya when the might of Russia's military machine was used against them. Laws have not helped the millions of citizens who suffer from having their wages withheld. Many of the decisions on the sale of government property also have a doubtful legal basis.


Just because people do not respect the law does not mean that Russians do not like writing laws. On the contrary, everyone writes them. Local authorities amuse themselves by creating rules and laws as often as the federal authorities. The Constitutional Court would need decades to review all the suspicious acts that have been adopted in the regional Dumas in Russia. Departments and institutions are adopting regulations and rules that contradict both laws and rules and regulations of other departments.


The government and the opposition majority in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, are constantly arguing over the land code. Depending on which branch of power has more influence in a region, land policies are either liberal or statist. The law has no significance, given that all sides have let it be understood that they have no intention of changing their position. Why the desperate polemics then? Why adopt a land code at all if it will never be carried out in any version? Simply because as a political document it serves several functions. The federal authorities can show investors that they are staying on a liberal course. The deputies can prove to their voters that they have not changed their principles.


Of course, one can hope that a new generation will arise in which respect for the person and the law will reign. But a recent opinion poll of adolescents showed a record disrespect for such "Western" values, even compared to Soviet times. In response the question of which are the best ways of making money, the overwhelming majority (60 percent) said taking it by force. Through deceptive means came in second place and only 5 percent of those polled said "asking their parents for it" or earning the money were the best ways.


This does not mean that the majority of adolescents will steal from passersby on the street. At a certain age, they will become as upstanding citizens as their parents. But in their relations to the law, they, like the preceding generation, will live by the saying, "Every law has a loophole" or "One law for the rich, another for the poor."


A new society is being formed not despite the transitional period, but by the period itself. In fact, the period has long since ended. We already live by the new rules. And if respect for the law in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union has not increased, this means that it is unlikely to do so in the near future. At least, not until future crises and political conflicts lead to new changes in culture and society.


Boris Kagarlitsky is a researcher at the Academy of Sciences' Institute for Comparative Politics. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.