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The Wall Street Journal: Russian Justice

November 26, 2007

Vladimir Putin’s not-so-secret secret weapon is the courts. The Kremlin’s firm control over the judiciary keeps Russia an illiberal state and comes in handy against Mr. Putin’s enemies.

Two new politically tinged cases again show the Putin legal method at work. A Moscow court on Saturday night sentenced Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion who leads a coalition of opposition parties, to five days in prison for leading an “unauthorized” demonstration in the capital. If forced to serve out the term this week, Mr. Kasparov would be out of the picture in the lead-up to Sunday’s parliamentary elections.
A day earlier, prosecutors indicted one of the last liberal government ministers, Sergei Storchak, on embezzlement and fraud charges. His arrest the previous week fueled speculation about the government’s motives — none of which concerned the merits of the case against the deputy finance minister and chief debt negotiator. Ever since the Yukos prosecutions three years ago, Russia’s courts are seen as tools of politicians.

Mr. Storchak, who also helps manage Russia’s $148 billion oil windfall fund, seems to be caught in Kremlin crossfire. A prosecutor close to Mr. Putin went after him, suggesting to some that the security services wanted to pressure Mr. Storchak’s boss, Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Kudrin. Mr. Kudrin had sparred with this important Kremlin faction over the best way to spend the energy billions and was also mentioned among possible successors to Mr. Putin, should the President honor the Constitution and step down next year. In an unusual move, Mr. Kudrin vouched for Mr. Storchak’s innocence.

Russia made halting progress in establishing rule of law and an independent judiciary in the years after the Soviet Union’s collapse. But Mr. Putin, from the day he took power in 2000, reversed course.

The pivotal event was Yukos. Before this case, it was hard to imagine that the Kremlin could ever go so far as to use a tax evasion case to destroy Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and its biggest oil company, Yukos.

But it did just that — with impunity. Yukos’s choicest bits were sold to a state-owned Russian oil company for a song, in the first of many steps by the Kremlin to reassert its control over the energy sector. Mr. Khodorkovsky, a Putin rival, is serving a 10-year sentence in a Siberian camp. In subsequent years, the courts were instrumental in forcing Royal Dutch Shell out of a multi-billion dollar energy exploration project and to pressure other international majors.

Russia’s beleaguered democratic politicians, denied access to the media and prevented from freely campaigning and assembling, are finding no relief from the judiciary. Mr. Kasparov, a contributing editor to the Journal’s editorial page, isn’t surprised, calling his conviction Saturday “a symbol of what has happened to justice and the rule of law under Putin.”

With all the decks stacked in favor of the Putin-backed United Russia party, the opposition’s only recourse is to take to the streets. Another pro-democracy rally was violently broken up in St. Petersburg yesterday. Around 200 were arrested, including former deputy prime minister and reformist, Boris Nemtsov, who plans to contest March presidential elections. He was later released.

Pliant courts and crooked bureaucrats are almost as old as Russia itself. Nikolai Gogol chronicled them a century before Kafka. In its early years, post-Soviet Russia had a chance to build up a court system that could one day become a healthy check on the state. But this promise of liberal society, as so many others, has been torpedoed by President Putin. and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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