AT 8:00 P.M., Moscow time, on September 21, 1993, Russian president Boris Yeltsin read out an emergency decree on national television. Blaming Russian parliamentary leaders for ignoring the will of the Russian people, Yeltsin abolished the existing constitution and disbanded every legislative assembly in Russia. Russian parliamentary leaders immediately called an emergency session and removed Yeltsin for treason. They named his vice president, Alexander Rutskoi, acting president. The Russian Constitutional Court chairman, Valery Zorkin, then appeared before Parliament and reported that a majority of the court had found Yeltsin’s decree unconstitutional. Russia now had two presidents.
These two presidents eyed each other warily across a tense Moscow for more than a week. They issued competing laws and decrees to strengthen their respective positions. With the backing of the West and the Russian armed forces, Yeltsin quarantined the Russian Parliament in its building. The Parliament surrounded itself with armed supporters and called for a general strike. Fears of civil war spread as both sides sought to gain support and project political legitimacy. Amid this “war of laws,” legality broke down. Chairman Zorkin frantically sought to forge a compromise that would restore the political struggle to a legal plane.
Zorkin’s effort failed. After a series of armed street clashes, Yeltsin ordered the army to storm the Russian Parliament. A shocked Russian populace looked on as tanks took up positions across from Parliament. As tank shells slammed into the building, Rutskoi called Zorkin and asked him to alert the embassies. He went on: “They won’t let us out of here alive. Is the world community actually going to let them shoot the witnesses? There’ll have to be an investigation later, you know. They’re murderers! Do you understand me? You’re a believer, it will be on your head.”
It was too late. Moments later, Russian special forces entered Parliament and arrested Rutskoi and his parliamentary supporters. The following day, Yeltsin indefinitely suspended the entire Constitutional Court for “political activities” and relieved Zorkin of his chairmanship.
Meanwhile, law remained an instrument of high-level political and economic warfare. Legality suffered as powerful elites deployed formal law to weaken their enemies and protect their wealth. The widespread use of law as an instrument of power politics threatened to pull Russia apart. In early 1994, Zorkin helped found a movement called “Accord in the Name of Russia.” The movement’s manifesto called for the restoration of a top-down hierarchy in law and order to preserve Russia’s territorial integrity and restore Russian greatness. Although the movement was ultimately unsuccessful, this embittered elite remained.
VLADIMIR PUTIN became Russian president in 2000. He promptly promised to fulfill the dreams of this disillusioned elite by restoring top-down legality to Russia. Most have dismissed this pledge as Soviet-style subterfuge, a veneer of legality to paper over Putin’s personalized system of authoritarian rule. And it is certainly true that Putin has come to dominate Russian politics by successfully managing the personalized, mafia-style world of politics inherited from the 1990s. Numerous commentators have documented Putin’s role as the “godfather” of Russia’s extralegal, personalized world of power. Furthermore, many reports suggest that official corruption has increased during his thirteen years of national dominance. Recently leaked WikiLeaks cables have provided juicy details about the shadowy underworld in which Russian power operates. One cable describes a network of bribes and kickbacks that stretches all the way from the streets to the highest levels of Russian government.
At the same time, however, Putin has delivered on his promises to reform Russia’s formal legal system. In his first term, Putin pushed through ten new legal codes. These reforms helped create a legal foundation for free market economics in Russia, including the introduction of Russia’s first-ever land code, a new tax code that introduced a 13 percent flat tax and a new labor code, which sought to regulate employer-employee relations and make it easier to lay off employees.
Putin initiated a number of other legal reforms and alterations. He sought to update Soviet-era codes affecting individual rights. In 2002, he scuttled a Soviet-era criminal code that allowed near-unlimited pretrial detention and searches without judicial intervention. In its place, he pushed through a new criminal code that greatly expanded access to jury trials while limiting prosecutorial power and the amount of time for pretrial detention. But he also pushed through legislation limiting individual rights when these rights were seen as threatening the state.
In addition, Putin substantially increased federal funding to Russian legal institutions, raising judicial pay while expanding the number of justices of the peace who handle local disputes. He pushed through legislation furthering the professionalization of the legal system by requiring the use of licensed lawyers (advokaty) in criminal trials. He has ratified international agreements, including the UN Convention against Corruption, and made Russia part of the Financial Action Task Force. Finally, Putin has faithfully implemented a number of decisions rendered by the European Court of Human Rights.
This formal legal reform raises some intriguing and sometimes troubling questions. How does Putin’s personal style of rule fit in with these formal legal reforms? And why haven’t these legal reforms reduced corruption?