In Russia, 'Legal Nihilism' as Usual

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. (By Vladimir Rodionov -- Associated Press)
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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, July 28, 2008

Though he had been handpicked by Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev's inauguration as Russia's president in early May inspired some in the West to hope for real change in the Kremlin. The expectations rested largely on Medvedev's background as a law professor who, unlike Putin, had no history with the Soviet KGB. There was also his surprisingly strong rhetoric about the "legal nihilism" that he said was holding back Russia's "modern development." "We must achieve true respect for the law," the 42-year-old president declared shortly after being sworn in.

Nearly three months later Medvedev already has established a pretty strong track record on legal affairs both domestic and foreign. Unfortunately, it is precisely the opposite of what he led his would-be admirers to expect.

One of those might have been Robert Dudley, chief executive of the oil company TNK-BP, which is a joint venture between British Petroleum and a group of Russian oligarchs. Dudley was forced out of Russia last Thursday by what he called a "series of unprecedented inquiries, investigations and checks," including government officials' refusal to renew his work permit and visa.

Dudley and BP are nominally embroiled in a power struggle with their Russian partners, who claim that TNK-BP, Russia's third-largest oil company, has been poorly managed. But this supposedly private business dispute has been marked by relentless and one-sided intervention by the Kremlin's law enforcers. Since March, Dudley has been told that he's under investigation by the interior ministry for tax evasion and notified by prosecutors of a probe into alleged labor violations. His offices were raided by the FSB, the modern-day KGB. The labor inspectorate imposed a fine. A court order annulled the visas of 148 BP technicians.

There's little doubt among foreign diplomats about what's motivating this onslaught: The government intends to force BP to turn over control of the oil company and its reserves to a state-owned firm. Similar tactics were used to pressure Royal Dutch Shell to deliver control of a gas project to Gazprom in 2006. Before that were the tax cases and criminal prosecutions that Putin used to destroy and confiscate the Yukos oil company and send its founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to a Siberian prison camp.

Khodorkovsky, who has spent nearly five years in prison, was another one who hoped Medvedev would be different. He recently filed a request for parole, for which he became eligible in October 2007. Medvedev could have signaled a clear break with the past by ending the persecution of a man who provoked Putin's wrath by promoting democracy and the rule of law. Instead, he blandly told foreign journalists this month that Khodorkovsky's case should be handled by "law enforcement authorities." Prosecutors duly filed a new set of charges that could keep Khodorkovsky imprisoned for many more years.

So much, then, for domestic reform. What about international law? After all, Medvedev issued a new foreign policy doctrine this month that cited "the supremacy of law in international relations" as one of three top priorities. Ask a Russian diplomat what that means, and you'll hear a lecture about how the United States should be constrained by international treaties and prohibited from taking any action -- such as recognizing the independence of Kosovo or sanctioning Zimbabwe -- not authorized by the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow has a veto.

Yet the law still doesn't seem to matter when it comes to Russia's oil and gas contracts with European countries, which Putin regularly used as a tool for bullying. Just ask the Czech government, which on July 8 signed a deal with the United States to base a missile defense radar on its territory. The next day its oil supplies from Russia mysteriously dropped 40 percent, a blatant violation of the legal agreement between the two countries. Russian officials blamed unspecified pipeline problems -- only to report last week that Putin, in his new capacity as prime minister, had ordered the resumption of deliveries.

More serious is the predicament of Georgia, the former Soviet republic that has embraced democracy and sought NATO membership. Since shortly before Medvedev took office, Russian warplanes have been systematically violating Georgian airspace, shooting down Georgian drone aircraft on several occasions. In breach of a U.N.-sponsored agreement, Moscow has dispatched security forces to the separatist region of Abkhazia and granted legal recognition to its self-declared government. U.S. and European officials believe a concerted effort is underway to provoke the Georgian government into an armed confrontation.

Perhaps Medvedev isn't really in charge of Russian foreign policy or relations with foreign oil companies. Maybe he can't control what charges his prosecutors choose to bring, the regulatory actions of the labor ministry, the tax investigations of the interior ministry or even visa decisions. Whatever the case, this Russian president is already in danger of making "legal nihilism" the byword for his administration.

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