Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Don't Blame the Laws

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

If you take the commentators seriously, you might well get the impression that all of Russia's problems are caused by bad laws. Every time some problem crops up, someone with a serious expression explains to us that all we need to do is adopt the appropriate legislation and all will be well.

A whole horde of Russian and foreign analysts has emerged that studies Russian laws in order to find how they differ from Western models and then proceeds to blame all of the country's shortcomings on those deviations. In doing so, they must studiously avoid noticing that Russia has no fewer problems in those areas regulated by laws that scrupulously copy the West's prescriptions.

In general, laws in the West are written by people who try to reflect in them various norms and prejudices that are accepted by large segments of their societies. This is one reason why laws are changed from time to time. The strength of a democratic society is that its laws form constantly and gradually, reflecting the evolution of the society itself. What is legal and normal today may be outlawed tomorrow and vice versa.

Laws only work effectively when — without any particular effort on the part of government — they embody principles that are accepted by the majority of the people. If a state tries to bind people with laws that they don't accept or don't understand, it ensures that they will not be obeyed. Or, to be more precise, they will only be obeyed if the state resorts to mass repressions.

As long as Russia preserves at least some of the features of a democracy, we will continue to buy pirate CDs, walk on the grass and cross the street against the lights. We will continue to make use of our own, very original interpretations of property rights, preferring to resort to criminal groups rather than the courts. And our nominally independent judges will continue to listen careful to the advice of influential people. Everyone understands that these are our customs.

In fact, by attempting to copy Western legal norms, the Russian elite is following a path that is completely opposite to that followed by the West.

No one in Europe or North America ever dreamed of passing a law for no other reason than because a similar one was on the books in, say, China.

It is a fact that the more our lawmakers try to adopt all sorts of "civilized" documents to regulate all aspects of our life, the more corruption we see. You see, in such cases it is impossible to obey the law without going against the very nature of our social fabric and, of course, it is impossible to simply ignore the law. The result is corruption. Corruption is a type of compromise, a bridge between our official ideology and the reality of life here.

Of course, tolerating corruption is no answer, because it quickly pushes aside any respect for legality at all. We saw this perfectly under Boris Yeltsin. However, the war against corruption is also doomed: Russian society is in a dead end. As a result, the authorities are only half-heartedly fighting against corruption, trying to merely limit it rather than rooting it out. Unfortunately, the limits of corruption are politically defined: Those who are loyal to Putin may indulge and those who are not will be punished.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist.