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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Collins Calls Judicial Reform Top Task

James Collins, the departing U.S. ambassador to Russia, said Thursday that the country's biggest domestic challenge in the years ahead will be to institute a judicial reform plan that could help limit the arbitrary exercise of authority.

"If in fact the priority for [President Vladimir] Putin and the administration is to modernize the economy … to compete in the modern economic system and participate fully in the system of the industrial democracies, then you're going to have to ensure that this rule of law is the principle of the future," Collins said.

Nearing the end of his four-year term as the United States' top envoy to Russia, Collins said the Kremlin was sending out mixed messages on where it was leading the country.

On the one hand, it has thrown its support behind economic reform proposals that should help improve the climate for business. On the other, Moscow has been engaged in the war in Chechnya, where human rights have been violated, and Russia has seen a rise in what Collins called arbitrary authority — including the growing power of the security services.

"I think arbitrary authority here is a continuing problem, whether it's in private hands or public hands," Collins said.

"It's why I think the issue probably for the next decade to watch, if we're really going to see where the society is going, is what happens on the judicial reform and the seeming effort to create a new set of norms in which laws and predictable norms are going to guide the actions not just of individuals but also of public officials. … I don't know what the outcome will be."

The State Duma last month tentatively approved a bill to overhaul the judiciary, which has remained largely untouched since Soviet times. The judicial reform program would grant judges greater independence, trim prosecutors' powers and institute trial by jury. Its supporters say it will help level the legal playing field for businesses and private citizens alike.

Collins said that the growing power of the security services and restrictions on press freedom contradicted Russia's stated goal of modernizing its economy.

"Many of the ideas that are held by some of the elements who think of control as the ultimate real problem here are great for running a 1930s economy, but they're just not going to work in the year 2002," Collins said.

On international affairs, Collins expressed optimism that bilateral ties would continue to improve after a decade he characterized as "something of a rollercoaster."

He said the 1998 economic crisis and the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia the following year, which Moscow furiously opposed, were the lowest points during his tour. Collins did not mention more recent problems, including the tit-for-tat expulsion of 50 diplomats from each side, and the chill that settled over relations after then-U.S. presidential candidate George W. Bush indicated that Washington would toughen its approach to Moscow.

The relationship has since steadied, following meetings between the two nations' top defense and foreign affairs officials and last month's friendly summit between Putin and Bush.

Collins said he was not concerned by Russian threats to equip ballistic missiles with multiple warheads if the United States goes ahead with its plan to construct a missile shield. Putin repeated the threat recently at a meeting with American journalists.

"It's a situation in which Russia is essentially reiterating positions which it has stated really for some time now, really almost since the beginning of the missile defense issue … arose in a concrete way, and essentially saying we are prepared to talk when we have specifics to discuss," Collins said.

"Readiness to talk indicates readiness to negotiate," he added.