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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Reformers: Faultless to a Fault?

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Western advocates for the rule of law in Russia have had much to celebrate lately. In recent weeks, under strong prodding by President Putin, the Duma has moved ahead on two extraordinary pieces of reform legislation: an entirely new Criminal Procedural Code and a potentially revolutionary land reform law.

Yet these seemingly positive developments have been met with scorn by some of Russia's top reformers, as have the efforts of President Vladimir Putin in supporting these measures (see The Moscow Times article of Monday, July 2, 2001, The Vertical Takeoff of Reforms, by Sergei Pashin).

Both of these bills had been stalled in the State Duma since the mid-1990s despite — or because of — former President Boris Yeltsin's efforts to get them passed. Yet Putin, with little fanfare, has managed to do what Yeltsin with all his bravado could not do: He managed to get the notoriously conservative Duma to approve these sweeping bills.

The new Criminal Procedural Code, which passed its second reading a month ago — a final, third, reading in the Duma's fall session is seen as a formality before the bill is sent to the Federation Council where approval is expected — has long been advocated by Western legal experts as an important step in the development of the rule of law. It will divest power from Russia's prosecutors and invest it in the country's judiciary. It does this by taking away from the prosecutors the right to issue arrest and search warrants, and places this power in the hands of judges. The new code also allows criminal defendants to retract confessions, many of which are still beaten out of suspects by Russian police. Under the new code, once retracted by a defendant, such confessions cannot be used as evidence.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the new code guarantees the right to jury trials in criminal cases. Under the current system, Russian prosecutors often do not even show up at trials, so confident are they in the likelihood that the judge will convict, since there is no jury there to hamper him.

Russia actually began a jury trial experiment in 1993, but jury trials were only held in nine of the country's 89 regions, and in recent years juries heard only 2 percent of Russia's criminal trials.

The results of even this small experiment have been startling: While the acquittal rate in old-style Russian criminal trials today is about 1 percent, in areas with the jury trial experiment nearly 20 percent of all accused have been freed by juries.

The new code expands this right to all Russians accused of serious crimes, allowing them to have their cases heard by 10-member juries of their peers. This will force prosecutors to actually prove their cases with hard evidence, rather than relying upon the rubber-stamps of judges or so-called lay assessors — a vestige of the Soviet system in which two hand-picked citizens sit with the judges.

Once passed, the new code will force prosecutors throughout the entire country to bring stronger cases, or else face a loss at the hands of suspicious juries. Further, a stamp of public approval comes with a jury verdict, and serves to make credible the actions of the state. Juries also act as a check on state corruption. Russia sorely needs such a system of checks and balances as it attempts to confront organized crime and to establish the rule of law.

The land reform bill is equally far-reaching in the historical change it represents. The bill — which passed in its second reading earlier this month and, like the legal reform bill, is expected to easily pass in the Federation Council — would do something that would have been anathema to Communists: allow the private ownership of some land in Russia. So offensive is this to the old guard that some Communists and Agrarian party members actually came to blows with proponents of the measure in the Duma session in which the measure was passed. They then marched out of the Duma en masse and sang old revolutionary songs outside.

Not only does this land reform bill allow private ownership of land by Russian citizens, it even allows land ownership by foreigners — a remarkable change.

Russia's markets have been slow to develop in the atmosphere of uncertainty that currently exists over the issue of whether or not individuals can really own land. In addition to the obvious economic benefits of legalizing private land ownership, this law would go a long way towards reducing the power of organized crime groups in Russia. The absence of legal land ownership has created a bonanza for mafia groups who currently control property through a violent black market system.

To hear the complaints of some Russian reformers, these two bills are actually steps backward. Yet compared to the laws currently in place, the new measures are vast improvements. To be sure, these two new pieces of legislation do not go far enough. For instance, as Judge Pashin points out, the new criminal code does not provide criteria by which a judge can approve or reject a proposed warrant, nor does it do away with the ability of prosecutors to reject some defense-gathered evidence. Likewise, critics in the liberal Union of Right Forces have correctly noted that the land reform bill has serious shortcomings. In an effort to get something passed by a recalcitrant Duma, Putin dropped a provision that would have also authorized the sale of agricultural land. This, he promises, will be taken up in a subsequent bill. Nevertheless, the two new bills, once passed into law, will make for enormous changes in the lives of ordinary Russian citizens. They will provide Russia's citizens with a measure of personal and economic freedom not previously enjoyed.

Westerners tend to label as a reformer any Russian leader who speaks some English and doesn't pound his shoe on tables. We should be cautious then in assessing Putin, a former KGB agent who rose to prominence under suspicious circumstances following apartment bombings in Russia, and who has on many fronts been anything but reform-minded. International human rights organizations have alleged that serious human rights violations have been committed in Chechnya, resulting in the deaths or disappearance of thousands of people. Putin's actions on legal and land reform are therefore all the more surprising and bear further watching. Only time will tell whether he is serious about reform, but in a country about which there has been little good news to report in recent years, Putin's newest actions are a welcome change, and credit should be given where credit is due. His critics are, as the poet Robert Browning said, "faultless to a fault." In their demand for perfection, these critics are too quick to find fault in actions that will go a long way toward establishing the rule of law in Russia.

Duncan DeVille is a former federal prosecutor who has lived and worked in Russia on behalf of both NGOs and the U.S. Justice Department. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.