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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Medvedev's Rule of Law

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An old friend of mine, who is one of the most law-abiding people I know, said to me recently, "I hereby announce a personal boycott of all licensed video products. From now on, I will buy only pirated DVDs." So what prompted my friend to go after the copyright holders?

My friend is an avid news consumer. One of the things that caught her attention recently were television reports of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's speech before a group of lawyers on Jan. 29 about people's low regard for the law. One example that he cited was Russians' fondness for buying cheap pirated products.

By that time, my friend had been following newspaper reports about the tragedy of Vasily Aleksanyan, the former Yukos vice president who was held at the infamous Matrosskaya Tishina pretrial detention facility even though he is terminally ill. Aleksanyan's repeated requests to be treated in a normal civilian hospital were denied by the Russian courts, including the Supreme Court. This violated not only the formal written law, but elementary laws of human decency as well.

My friend challenged Medvedev's own words regarding respect for the law, saying in protest, "I will obey the law just as little or as much as the government does."

When the authorities initiate campaigns such as its "war on pirated goods," this has unintended but easily predictable consequences. In many cases, these disingenuous battles against lawlessness are used by local officials to shut down opposition newspapers and by the police to extort money from businesses. When members of various law enforcement agencies seize a small firm's computers under the pretext of checking whether the software is licensed, the business owners are forced to pay hefty bribes to keep their companies alive.

Whether he meant it or not, Medvedev's example for Russians' disrespect of the law is equivalent to shouting "Attack!" to a Doberman -- except the dog in this case is the corrupt law enforcement officials who are salivating at the prospect of extorting bribes from small companies. Mark my words, these campaigns, initiated under the noble slogan of strengthening the law, will be a big financial blow to small businesses. At the same time, naive Westerners will be pleased to hear that Russia is finally cracking down on pirated goods.

What is most disturbing is that are so many cases like Aleksanyan's in which citizens are subjected to sadistic treatment by government officials who are backed by the courts and cops. And now imagine an honest judge or policeman who would happily sign onto the high standards that Medvedev is calling for in his campaign speeches but sees the lawless behavior of the same authorities toward Aleksanyan. The only conclusion you could reasonably make from this vivid contradiction is that Medvedev is either a hypocrite or a demagogue. Corrupt law enforcement officials, however, see this as an endoresment to pursue their old ways. They know that even if they go too far, the worst they can expect is a gentle slap on the wrist from the higher-ups. This is exactly what happened to Moscow's Simonovsky District Court. Only when Aleksanyan's lack of medical care in custody began to tarnish the reputation of the government was he moved to a specialized clinic.

Many people are happy that Medvedev is not a hawk because they hope that domestic and international tensions will be eased if he becomes the next president. But in the past several weeks, we have seen once again the Kremlin's saber-rattling and petty bickering over election observers. It is as if this was purposely orchestrated to undercut Medvedev and prevent him from living up to expectations of becoming a Western-oriented liberal. But is it not clear that Medvedev himself ever had this intention in the first place.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of IFRA-GIPP (Strategii i Praktika Izdatelskogo Biznesa), a magazine for publishing business professionals.