Paddy Ashdown: Russia Should Commit to Rule of Law

In a column published in the International Herald Tribune, former leader of the Liberal Democrats and Current President of the EU-Russia Centre Paddy Ashdown reminds us that the West need not lecture Russia about democracy, but rather simply ask that it fulfills its signed agreements with the EU and Council of Europe in regards to rule of law.

The European Union has a major interest in a strong, stable, prosperous Russia – but also a democratic Russia that adheres to the rule of law. We should not be preaching all the time to Russia about democracy and human rights, but we should insist that Moscow lives up to the commitments it accepted in the 1997 partnership and cooperation agreement with the European Union and its obligations as a member of the Council of Europe. The rule of law is notorious for its ambiguity, but there are three key elements: Government power is exercised in accordance with well-established and clearly written rules; no branch of government is above the law; and the principle of the separation of powers is observed. It would be difficult to assert that Russia meets any of these criteria. Does this matter? Foreign businesses are doing well in Russia. Sales and profits are rising and more companies are entering the market. The turnout of Western chief executives at the St. Petersburg economic summit meeting in June is testimony to the growing interest in the Russian market. At the same time there are increasing concerns about the quality of the business environment in Russia. According to recent reports by the World Bank and OECD, Russia suffers from a lack of transparent legislation, poor implementation of laws, corruption and a weak judiciary. In addition, corporate governance leaves much to be desired, especially in those companies largely under state control. Most analysts agree that without the rule of law it will be impossible to attract the scale of foreign investment that Russia says it wants to help diversify its economy away from excessive reliance on energy resources. It is very much in the European Union’s interest to help Russia achieve this goal as a more balanced economy would greatly boost trade ties. There is enormous potential for cooperation. For example, the European Union has considerable experience in regional development and assisting the transformation of “old” industrial areas. What then are the prospects for the rule of law in Russia and how can the European Union best support efforts to strengthen an independent judiciary? Although the short-term prospects are not encouraging, there are a number of factors that give cause for long-term optimism. These include an underlying respect for integrity among many Russians, a religious revival, the practical need for honesty and predictability in a modern economy, membership in the World Trade Organization and the fact that the world is watching to an extent never before possible. That the Kremlin is concerned about its image abroad is borne out by the vast sums now being paid to Western public relations firms to help promote “Russia, Inc.” Russia has parliamentary and presidential elections in the coming months. A new president could respond to growing business pressure and help establish a new paradigm based on modernization of the economy, social reform and respect for the rule of law.

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