The decision today to convict Alexei Kozlov on fraud charges and sentence him to 5 years in a labor camp, seemingly as retribution against his wife, the activist journalist Olga Romanova, raises a crucial issue in terms of Russian reform. I appreciate that I am unfashionable in being mildly optimistic about police reform in Russia and the prospect that — over years, not overnight — it might lead to the emergence of a force concerned less with protecting the interests of the state and the elite and more with upholding the law and providing security for all. However, that will be impossible or meaningless without a corresponding change in the nature and culture of the Russian court system. If the courts are corrupt and/or subject to undue political influence, then police reform will be largely irrelevant: the guilty can arrange for themselves to be released, even if arrested, through bribery and blat (influence, connections), while the innocent who fall foul of the state or the elite will still be at risk. As is, time and again the courts appear to be — as in Soviet times — nothing more than instruments of factional and elite interest, from denying environmentalists their rights to characterizing efforts to confront homophobia as ‘extremism.’
For all the continued problems there, I do look to Italy for a good example of how societies can begin to reform their whole legal and enforcement structure. For decades, there was no fundamental control of the Mafia or political corruption alike, and that there has been progress (however halting or partial at times) attests to the importance of three basic necessities:
1. A police force willing and able to do its job. For a long time there has been cops who wanted to be cops, but political pressures and the corruption of the courts held them back.
2. A judiciary willing and able to do its job. There were, of course, stooges and villains within the magistracy and judges, but there were also many committed individuals eager to prosecute those deserving of prosecution. However, the upper reaches of the judiciary were politically-dominated and many cases never even made it to the courts.
3. A society fed up with the status quo, willing to force their political leaders to let the courts and police do their jobs. In other words, it was not so much that the political class had some sudden and miraculous conversion, so much as they came to realize that the kind of collegial corruption, flagrant influence peddling, etc that had served them so well in the past was no longer tenable. So, nervously, reluctantly, conditionally, they let the cops and courts off the leash.
In this context, police reform may eventually lead to the fulfillment of condition #1 in Russia. There are already numerous cops who would rather be cops, if that makes sense. And the protest movement, especially the constellation of local activism, media and grassroots mobilizations is the sign of the potential for #3. After all, while it is a lot easier for society to have its voice heard within a working democracy, even in a hybrid authoritarianish democracy like Russia’s, no regime can ignore public opinion (even the CPSU couldn’t and didn’t). But I can’t help that #2 is still the most elusive. There has been some progress on the commercial side, especially in the arbitrazh courts, reflecting the rise of business and Medvedev’s desire to create the legal frameworks for economic progress and reform. On the criminal side, though, despite great talk about the introduction of jury trials marking a revolutionary change (too often not, even where a jury is involved), the courts still seem politicized, lacking in professionalism, honesty, transparency and consistency. That is a serious obstacle on the way to any meaningful progress in bringing legitimacy and integrity to the system.