Law as a Weapon

Journalist William Partlett has a very interesting piece in The National Interest on Vladimir Putin’s unusual relationship with the judiciary.

By tolerating lawlessness in return for personal loyalty, Putin’s lawfare state therefore violates the central principle of conservative liberalism: its insistence on clear and rigidly enforced legal rules.

So what motivates Zorkin’s outspoken support? Two possibilities: First, he might genuinely believe Putin’s use of lawfare to enforce an informal, top-down “vertical of power” is a necessary transitional stage before Russia develops a true law-based state. For a man who remains scarred by his experience of the 1990s, Putin’s anti-Western style must have strong emotional appeal. In the beginning this might have been true: the regime’s attention to formal law helped inject needed money into legal institutions.

This rationale, however, is quickly losing force. Putin shows no sign of moving toward a true law-based state. In a question-and-answer session with the Russian public, Putin was asked when he thought he would no longer need to “manually control” Russia. Citing the experience of Franklin Roosevelt in the United States (another of Putin’s favorite historical comparisons), Putin argued that it often took a long time to emerge from a crisis. He then explained that he could relinquish his personal control over the country only “after we create the necessary legal conditions and mechanisms, when all parts of a market economy work to the full extent.” These conditions would be in place, he speculated, at the very end of his fourth presidential term in 2024.

Furthermore, Putin’s persistent use of the law to reinforce his personalized style of rule threatens to delegitimize the court system altogether. Even today, the growing protest movement expresses a lack of trust in the courts’ willingness to vindicate their rights in cases involving powerful officials. Will Zorkin realize that the Putin regime—recently labeled “The Party of Crooks and Thieves” by its opponents—is actually weakening the legal institutions necessary for a law-based state?