BY JOE WOLPIN
This fall, NBC plans to launch a Russian version of the popular television series Law and Order. As fans of the U.S. show know, in the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups: the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. And although the characters and context are somewhat different, a string of recent murders has demonstrated that Russia’s real life criminal justice system is in crisis.
In September, a Russian Central Bank official responsible for money laundering investigations was murdered after playing soccer with his colleagues. Two weeks later, the chief engineer of BP’s Russian gas unit was assassinated in Siberia. On October 7, prominent journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot and killed near her apartment building. Three days later, a Moscow bank branch manager was executed outside his home. And nearly three weeks ago, the ITAR-TASS news agency’s business chief was stabbed to death in his apartment.
Not surprisingly, Russian authorities have linked most of the murders with the victims’ “professional activities,” as if their slayings are an unfortunate consequence of being involved in high stakes politics and business. President Vladimir Putin even has suggested that journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s murder was an attempt to damage his government’s image. But President Putin is ignoring the fact that the world has witnessed scores of journalists, businessmen, and politicians murdered on his streets. The English word “killer” has even crept into common Russian parlance to denote a hired assassin. And most disturbingly, Russian authorities historically have a dismal record of finding and prosecuting those behind such contract killings. It is not the individual murders, but rather the emasculated Russian criminal justice system that ultimately discredits any attempt by Moscow to portray an evolving democracy.
Of course not all crimes in Russia go unprosecuted. But recent well-publicized murder trials in the country have produced disturbing results. Earlier this month, jurors in St. Petersburg found nine defendants not guilty of murdering a Vietnamese student. This case marked the third time this year in St. Petersburg alone that a jury had acquitted Russian defendants accused of killing ethnic minorities. Some Russians see these verdicts as evidence of poor police work in identifying and vetting suspects; others view them as an indictment of underpaid, incompetent, or corrupt prosecutors and judges. Still others believe they demonstrate the need to eliminate jury trials altogether in the country.
This perversion of criminal justice in Russia is more than simply ironic given President Putin’s emphasis on maintaining law and order in a country combating terrorism, mass corruption and poverty. The sad state of Russian criminal law is emblematic of a systematic weakening of the rule of law that has serious implications for U.S. foreign policy. The importance of the rule of law pervades our relations with Russia: western investors have long complained of arbitrary and corrupt enforcement of commercial agreements; the U.S. is currently withholding Russia’s World Trade Organization membership largely because Moscow refuses to take action against a Russian music website infringing on copyright; and a new law tightening restrictions on NGO activities in Russia threatens the existence of human rights groups operating in the country.
In fact, the U.S. and Russia are at odds over many prominent policy disputes, including the situations in Iran and North Korea. But while Russia reacts coolly to Washington’s lectures about democracy and international relations, its lawyers and judges welcome collaboration with U.S. legal experts. The American Bar Association and the U.S. Justice Department both sponsor exchanges and workshops with Russian jurists and police to discuss criminal procedure reforms, organized crime, public corruption, and other topics, but these programs have more promise than their funding and frequency suggest. Perhaps our efforts to transplant U.S.-style democracy abroad have been too broadly focused; sharing the American tradition and development of law, however, can be one of our greatest exports. Today’s Russia, like many countries in transition, needs civil society infrastructure more than it needs a savior. The road to democracy, ultimately, is grounded in a respect for law. And while exporting the television series Law and Order might entertain Russians, the U.S. will make the most meaningful contribution to their future by helping them build a more effective justice system beyond their television screens.
Joe Wolpin, 1L, is from Atlanta, Georgia.