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Rule Makers and Rule Takers

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Early in the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, many in the West were hoping for a turn away from state corruption and toward the rule of law in Russia. Unfortunately that train has now left the station.

From Moscow to Brasilia to Beijing, there has emerged a consensus around sovereignty and non-interference as the new organizing principles of international affairs. With the gradual decline of American unipolarity, the new players are seeking to redefine the global economic architecture, and rule-based institutions do not figure highly among their priorities.

This article was originally published in the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung.


Over the past year, my law firm has worked on politically sensitivecases in some 10 different countries, Brazil and Russia among them, andmy subjective impression has been that international law is underassault. The new powers have a different vocabulary on many key issues.Universal human rights are seen as code for color revolutions andinternal interference.

Support for international law is understood assome kind of foreign hindrance upon the exercise of unchecked executivepower with no horizontal accountability. Democracy, to Russian andChinese ears, has become a most insidious and sinister term synonymouswith vulnerability and weakness.

The BRIC Consensus can be observed in the scramble for resources inAfrica, as the new powers seize property through corrupt intermediaries,flip the assets through sales to third parties, and extort the localinstitutions through political pressure related to state-controlledcorporations. It can be seen in light of various political crises, suchas the Russian and Brazilian leadership being the first to congratulateMahmoud Ahmadinejad on a rigged election, while protesters are arrestedand shot. The best illustration of the consensus could be seen by allthe empty chairs during the Nobel Prize ceremony for dissident LiuXiaobo (India, to its credit, had the courage to attend). Instead ofshared values or any coherent overlapping foreign policy objectives,this mutually assured doctrine of non-interference serves to protectcorruption of government elites, while bolstering state-controlledbusiness and the security of authoritarian structures.

Russia in particular fancies itself as a leading voice of what itperceives as a new world order. At the Munich Security Conference in2007, Vladimir Putin famously railed against the United States for”overstepping their borders,” and emphasized the new rules of the gamein Russia’s eyes. “There is no reason to doubt that the economicpotential of the new centres of global economic growth will inevitablybe converted into political influence and will strengthenmultipolarity,” Putin said to an applauding audience.

A few months later, Putin first aired his call for a new “globaleconomic architecture,” signaling a move away from the Bretton Woodssystem of international monetary management and dumping the dollar as areserve currency – a theme which would again be raised by hisplace-holding predecessor Dmitry Medvedev. Further, this theme hasechoed loudly with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, who has attempted a levelconscious parallelism with Putin’s Russia never before seen in thehistory of Latin America outside of Cuba.

Then came the invasion of Georgia followed by the economic crisis of2008, which shaved off 70% of the stock market’s value along with $150billion in foreign reserves, and the Russians came up with a newattitude emphasizing a thaw with the West. The pragmatic factions ofthe Russian elite understand that the key to the country’s future growthlies in attracting much needed long-term capital investments, allowingfor a diversification of the oil-dependent economy. However apart fromsymbolic gestures, Russia’s opening and modernization agenda has beenbereft of substance.

What is interesting is that between these starkly differentprojections, Russia has been able to create a post-war narrative toreplace the two camps of the Cold War, and this narrative places Russiaon the winning side. Against the internal pressure between Europe andAsia that is ever-present in the Russian psyche, this represents a greatfit with hyper-nationalism and identity politics, which serve as anideological substitute. At times, this hysteria boils over out ofcontrol, as demonstrated by the recent deadly race riots in Moscow – towhich Putin responded by pandering to the extremists, and talking aboutincreasing immigration controls despite shrinking demographics.

Russia wants the new world order to match its perceived newinfluence, which complicates the more pragmatic goal of integratingwithin existing frameworks to bring in investment. This paradox ismirrored by President Medvedev’s all-but-failed modernization agenda,which by definition requires a level of accountability that isexistentially antithetical to the political system of cronyism andlegalized corruption that forms the base of Putin’s political system.

The worst instincts of the Russian siloviki is aided and abetted byWestern opportunism. Political stakeholders and business leaders haveexhibited an astonishing presumption of regularity: a blind trust placedin Russia’s institutions operating in a legal and independent manner,meeting some sort of imaginary standards for their conduct. This habitof taking matters at face value has been disastrous for human rights,and not just for the famous cases of political prisoners such as MikhailKhodorkovsky and murdered lawyers such as Sergei Magnitsky, but muchmore often in terms of the brutality of everyday corruption andextortion by government officials.

The problem is not that Russia, nor any other emerging country, isfeeling assertive again – the reality is that the global balance ofpower is changing, and that new players will begin to test and exercisetheir influence. The problem is their insistence that a rule-basedinternational system doesn’t apply to them like it does to everyoneelse. Russia’s quest for exceptionalism on the international stage isnot motivated by its national interests, but rather by the personalinterests of a deeply corrupt bureaucracy in control of the country’sinstitutions.

We’ve already seen the BRIC consensus at work with the China-ledboycott of the Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize, as well as the mute response to theelection stolen by Alexander Lukashenka in Belarus. What do we thinkwill happen when Russia passes down its shameful verdict on theKhodorkovsky trial?