Russia Puts Too Much Stock in the West’s Opinion of It

If the Russians doubt that their societal organization, formed on the basis of historical processes in the old and new Russia, is an optimal one, foreign opponents will continue using every chance to emphasize the nation’s lack of self-confidence, including in areas such as litigation. The West will continue criticizing Russian institutions as long as Russia takes those criticisms seriously. interview with Ján Čarnogurský, a prominent Slovak lawyer and a member of the Valdai Discussion Club. He served as prime minister of Slovakia in 1991–1992 and as minister of justice in 1998 to 2002. He also used to head the country’s Christian Democratic Movement.

According to a survey conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation, only 24% of the public have a positive view of the country’s courts, while 40% view them negatively. Forty-four percent of those asked believe that turning to the courts makes sense only when all extrajudicial options have been exhausted. Fifteen percent argue that most conflicts can be resolved out of court; 7% have no trust in the judiciary whatsoever; and 4% of respondents believe all judges are corrupt. Is it appropriate to speak of a crisis in Russia’s judicial system? Is there a similar trend in any European country, including former members of the Eastern Bloc?

Mistrust of courts is not unique to Russia. Sociological surveys show a high level of mistrust for the judiciary in all the countries of the former Eastern bloc, and courts usually come in at the bottom of public trust rankings. According to an EU-wide Eurobarometer survey, only 29% of Slovaks trust their national judicial system. The findings for the Czech Republic are similar. The percentage of people that trust their respective national judiciaries is 28% for Romania, 26% for Latvia, 19% for Slovenia, 17% for Bulgaria, and 15% for Lithuania. Most of the respondents [in former Eastern Bloc countries] say they have no trust in courts. In Denmark, on the other hand, 80% trust their national judicial system; the figure is 74% for Finland and 67% for Austria.

The predominantly high level of mistrust for the judiciary in the former Eastern Bloc countries probably stems from the drastic societal transformations they have witnessed since the collapse of Communism. Back in the Communist era, public conflicts rarely found their way into court; but if they did, the media would hush up the hearings or produce an ideologically lopsided account thereof.

So society lived with a delusion of progress, unhindered by any serious conflicts.

But since the collapse of the Communist system, the judiciary has been subjected to dramatic transformations and the emphasis has come to be placed on the protection of individual human rights and freedoms. New regulatory domains have emerged, such as environmental protection and the protection of minorities’ rights. The interpretation of public conflicts has come under pressure and has been tested for political correctness. One example is what the Western media read into the Pussy Riot case.

The demands on judges have changed accordingly. These days, when hearing a case, they have to take into account a far greater number of details than before. In interpreting laws, they often have to reckon with concerns of political correctness, and they often end up overemphasizing personal rights. The supreme and constitutional courts have not yet proposed principles of legal interpretation that strike a sensible balance between the interests of society as a whole and its individual members.

In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, trust in courts is now growing, albeit slowly. It’s expected that by the middle of this century, public trust in the courts will prevail, provided that no social upheavals occur in the meantime.

Whatever the country and the era, the judiciary is always a conservative force, which isn’t unusual. Small wonder, then, that the judicial system of Russia and other former Socialist countries should be so slow to respond to current societal changes and should come under constant media scrutiny. From a long-term historical perspective, this is a natural process.

It’s important to keep in mind that the judiciary isn’t an institution isolated from society. If parliament or the head of state don’t function in compliance with the constitution or the ethical norms accepted in their community, no judicial system will be effective. And the greatest threat to the judiciary and its public image is corruption.

It’s only now that the inefficiency of Russia’s judicial system has become part of the public discourse. Why is that? Is this a result of the current political situation in the country, including the Pussy Riot trial, which began after the band performed a “punk prayer” at Christ the Savior’s [Moscow’s main cathedral], asking the Virgin Mary to banish [President Vladimir] Putin?

If the Russians doubt that their societal organization, formed on the basis of historical processes in the old and new Russia, is an optimal one, foreign opponents will continue using every chance to emphasize the nation’s lack of self-confidence, including in areas such as litigation.

In the West, many media outlets and politicians have condemned Russia for the verdict handed down to Pussy Riot. That’s the most absurd pretext for criticism possible.

Their performance at the Christ the Savior’s Cathedral was an unsavory act by itself, and it was preceded by other similar acts. The Pussy Riot girls were previously members of the anarchical group Voyna (War), which sought to shock the Russian public at all costs. And on February 29, 2008, the band staged a public orgy at the Timiryazev Museum of Biology.

According to Article 364 of Slovakia’s Penal Code, sexual intercourse or other sexual acts committed publicly, causing public outrage, shall be qualified as hooliganism.

If Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and her band had done such a thing in Slovakia, they would have been prosecuted and stood trial. But in Russia, nothing serious happened. Russian media reported the act. Then some of the Moscow University students involved were threatened with expulsion. And that was it. The Russian judiciary didn’t respond. Had they not been allowed to get away with that first “performance,” Tolokonnikova and her colleagues would have probably thought twice before going on to perform at Christ the Savior’s Cathedral.

This cathedral is a place of worship and a tourist attraction. Indecent dancing here can be qualified as hooliganism. If such a thing happened in Slovakia, an EU member nation, the perpetrators would face a prison sentence of 6 months to 3 years for hooliganism and another 2-5 years in jail for defaming national and moral dignity. So the Pussy Riot girls are lucky to be in Russia, not in Slovakia.

When Russian society’s self-consciousness and self-respect grow – which is bound to happen – interest in such cases will subside, although they may still remain part of the public discourse.

Why do you think the West keeps criticizing the Kremlin for a lack of democracy [in Russia] and limited effectiveness of [the country’s] judiciary?

In my view, Russia puts too much stock in the West’s opinion of it. Some fifteen years ago, the American football star O.J. Simpson was found innocent of murdering his ex-wife and her boyfriend. Simpson’s attorneys built their defense on the race issue. Simpson is an African American, and so were most members of the jury for his trial. Eventually, Simpson was set free despite conclusive evidence proving his guilt.

There may be many more such cases in the U.S., but we know nothing of them because not all those charged are celebrities like Simpson.

It is no secret that in New York City and other large population centers across the U.S, white people are advised against going to areas with a predominantly black population. Likewise, in Paris and Marseille, Europeans should avoid visiting Muslim-dominated neighborhoods. Law-enforcement agencies in these and other Western countries aren’t always capable of ensuring public safety.

The West will continue criticizing Russian institutions as long as Russia takes those criticisms seriously. But you should pay attention only to outside criticisms that are meaningful and may help you in reforming your social and political institutions.

Why do you think disputes in Russia tend to be resolved with the help of social and public institutions rather than in court?

The settlement of disputes out of court, through social and public institutions, is becoming increasingly popular all over the world, actually. Disputes usually take less time to resolve in various arbitration institutions than in court. It only takes the conflicting sides’ formal consent for a dispute to be heard by a public institution rather than a court. In Slovakia, every justice minister seeks to speed up court hearings, and will amend legislation accordingly. I, too, did that while in office. But no one has achieved perfection so far, and so every new minister has room to further modify legislation.

What mechanisms for reforming the judiciary could be applicable in Russia? And how has that process been going in Central and Eastern European nations?

As I said, the Slovaks are generally mistrustful of courts. But they have no other option for resolving their disputes. So the only way is to avoid quarrels with others; then you won’t have to go to court and have your claims heard in a court that you have no trust in.

In reforming its judiciary, Slovakia has been drawing extensively on the European Union’s expertise. The judicial systems of EU member states may have some shortcomings, but they are generally well-adjusted. Russia could also borrow a lot from the EU judiciary, I think, because the European Union is closer to it culturally and judicially than any other large nation or alliance of nations.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.