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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

President Medvodev Presiding in Russia: The Case of a Separate Judiciary

On December 31, 2010, a Russian judge sentenced Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian tycoon who had been imprisoned in 2003 after defying Vladimir Putin, to an additional six years in prison. According to The New York Times, "It was a politically tinged decision that undermined President Dmitri Medvodev." Leonid Goman of the Right Cause Party in Russia agrees. "It was obviously a political, not a judicial, decision." In general terms, "corruption is endemic, government power is often abused and senior politicians are rarely, if ever, held accountable for misdeeds."  The sentence is an indication that Prime Minister Putin was still in control of Russia.  His message was that wealthy businessmen should not interfere in Russian politics.  Khodorkovsky had financed opposition political parties. He was at one time the richest person in Russia, having been one of the oligarchs who bought government assets at bargain prices after the fall of the USSR.


This case illustrates how personal or partisan agendas can compromise a president’s credibility. That is, that President Medvodev was thought by some to be undermined implies that his office is inherently above partisanship.  If the prime minister was indeed running the show, that partisan office had eclipsed the presiding function of the presidency.

This case also points to the importance of separating a judiciary from executive and legislative branches of government. The fragile nature of a judiciary's credibility is also in the mix, as it was undoubtedly diminished by the sentence. While doing the bidding of a powerful government offiical may well be in the short term interest of a judge, such a practice contributes to the downfall of a country's judiciary. The president of a country is charged with presiding over its system of government to protect it as a going concern.  Matters such as the credibility of an entire branch of government ought thus to be on a president's radar screen. 

In the case of Russia, the problem was that the Prime Minister may have been running the show and tacitly undermining the president by expediently abusing the judiciary while keeping the president from acting to safeguard the long term viability of the government. Politics over leadership means short-term over long-term. All too often in many countries, presidents do not attend to the overall viability of their systems of government, preferring instead to engage in partisan politics. The Russian case illustrates the cost.

Source: Clifford Levy, "Russia Extends Prison Sentence of Tycoon 6 Years,” The New York Times, December 31, 2010, p. A1.

See related essay: On the Eclipse of Russian Federalism: Implications for the E.U.