Russia’s Overlap of Law and Politics
In the minutes after opposition leader Alexei Navalny was sentenced to prison, the Russian stock market took a dive. When a court released him a day later, share prices dropped markedly again.
Russia’s legal system is awash in the uncertainty that makes markets nervous. The courts appear open to political manipulation and the laws sometimes resemble legalistic head-fakes - nominally enacted for enlightened reasons, but in practice applied to silencing dissent and inconvenient voices.
A look at some cases of the uneasy intersection of law and politics:
The merits of the embezzlement case against the energetic anti-corruption blogger and charismatic opposition figure were widely questioned and his conviction on Thursday was quickly criticized in the West as a political put-up job. Ironically, it was his release that seemed to be the clearest evidence of a political agenda.
The release was justified by the court on the grounds that keeping Navalny behind bars would deprive him of the right to pursue his campaign for this fall’s Moscow mayoral election. By giving him at least temporary freedom Russia could bolster its claim that it does actually seek pluralism and full democracy, despite allegations that it’s deliberately moving to authoritarianism.
Russian lawyers were suspicious, saying the release of Navalny on these grounds - and at the request of prosecutors - was unprecedented. Pavel Chikov, a lawyer who’s a member of the presidential human rights council, went so far as to call it "nonsense."
"Most probably, this decision was dictated by political motives," he told the state news agency RIA Novosti.
Russia has laws promoting religious tolerance. Members of the country’s most politically vehement punk band ended up in prison because of one.
Just before the 2012 election that returned Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin, the band barged into Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral to screech out a "punk prayer" against him.
The Russian Orthodox Church is so closely tied to the government that offending believers in essence becomes a political act. So the conviction of three band members on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred superficially defended the sensitivities of the devout, but had a strong political taint. They were sentenced to two years in prison, though one has been released on parole.
Homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia in 1993, but gay activists’ annual requests to hold marches routinely are banned on the grounds of public security. The argument is that animosity toward gays, especially among conservative Orthodox groups, remains so strong that any such march would provoke a violent reaction. When unauthorized march attempts take place, thugs do indeed start throwing punches within moments - but police appear more concerned about arresting the activists than holding back the attackers.
That may change, and not in gays’ favor. The lower house of the national parliament has passed a measure calling for banning gay pride rallies outright.
In banning the adoption of Russian children by Americans last year, Russian lawmakers claimed they were protecting beloved tykes from abuse and death at the hands of adoptive parents whom U.S. authorities are too apathetic or disorganized to bring to justice. But the warmhearted concern came amid cold political fury.
The ban was part of a measure rushed through parliament in retaliation for a U.S. law allowing sanctions on Russians identified as human rights violators. Distress about the adoption ban overshadowed the more overtly political provisions of the Russian law, which also calls for the closure of non-governmental organizations receiving American funding, if their activities are classified as political.
It was seven decades ago that Nazi Germany fell to an offensive driven largely by the Red Army, but the war is still alive in Russia’s official culture. Massive annual commemorations of the victory - and periodic equally elaborate observances of major battles such as Stalingrad - allow Russians to bathe in the pride of a great and grueling achievement.
Awkwardly, though, the commander-in-chief was one of history’s most despised dictators, Josef Stalin. In the Putin years, Russia has significantly blurred that distinction to the point that referring to the Soviet army’s brutality and its seizure of the Baltic states is seen as an insult to the modern state.
A bill making its way through parliament would criminalize criticism of Soviet actions during the war. In theory, that would defend the honor of those who sacrificed and suffered. In practice, it could protect those who rule in the present.