An article by Peter Finn in yesterday’s Washington Post makes an interesting point about Yelena Valyavina’s surprising confession in late May about Kremlin interference in the courts: now we’re at least allowed to talk about rule of law and legal reform in Russia, which some are taking as an optimistic sign of the new Medvedev era. As Finn writes in his article, the fact that Valyavina’s boss, Anton Ivanov, is one of Medvedev’s closest supporters is “not lost on anyone,” and given that there is zero disagreement between Putin and Medvedev on foreign affairs or security issues, legal reform could be his “instrument” to build his own individual popularity and support, playing to the popular discontent with the corrupt and inefficient courts. It’s an interesting theory, accompanied by both supportive and damaging evidence.
All eyes are on Olga Yegorova, one of the justices famous for interfering in the Yukos case and turning the Moscow City Court in a Kremlin appendage, who is reported to be increasingly marginalized (more than 80 judges have resigned in protest since Yegorova’s appointment by presidential decree). We also saw that Manana Aslamazyan picked up an extremely rare fair ruling in her case, as the state backed off on the persecution of her and her group, Educated Media Foundation (although arguably the civil society body is now destroyed).But then, on the other hand, we have the legal eyesore of TNK-BP, which although is not exactly experiencing the same type of state attack as Yukos, Royal Dutch Shell, or even Russneft, it is still a clear and embarrassing case of Russia’s failing legal system to protect basic property and shareholder rights. Although what is surprising about the TNK-BP fiasco is how seriously the new Kremlin leadership is reacting to the image problem: First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov exposed his desperation to cover up the problem, and reassure investors of basic legal protections. “We have to repeat again and again — protection of property rights is the top and most important task of the state,” Shuvalov said.Yes indeed, Minister Shuvalov, wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t always have to repeat that?