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‘Telephone Law’ and the ‘Rule of Law’: The Russian Case

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 September 2009

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Abstract

By conventional measures, Russia lacks the ‘rule of law’. For evidence, we need look no further than the notorious Yukos case, in which its president, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was railroaded into a criminal conviction and his company was bankrupted, with the proceeds mysteriously ending up in the hands of Kremlin insiders. The Yukos case is only the most infamous example of so-called ‘telephone law,’ a practice by which outcomes of cases allegedly come from orders issued over the phone by those with political power rather than through the application of law. The media is replete with such accounts. The conclusion typically drawn by media commentators and social scientists alike is that the omnipresence of ‘telephone law’ makes any reliance on formal law or legal institutions in Russia fool hardy.

Generalizing from politicized cases with high stakes for everyone involved, including the state, is, however, problematic. Though the willingness of officials to mobilize ‘telephone law’ in such cases, either to further the interests of the state or for self-aggrandizement, clearly undermines the goal of equality before the law for all, whether it is reflective of practices in non-politicized cases is unclear. If it were, then we would expect to find a reluctance on the part of ordinary Russians to take their disputes to court. Yet the caseload data document just the opposite: the number of civil cases has more than doubled over the past decade. This gives rise to a puzzle: why are Russians willing to use a legal system that is so deeply and patently flawed? More importantly, what does it reveal about the prospects for the ‘rule of law’ in Russia?

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Copyright
Copyright © T.M.C. Asser Press and the Authors 2009

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