Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Case for a Presiding President in Russia

On December 31, 2010, a Russian judge sentenced Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian tycoon who had been imprisoned in 2003 after defying Vladimir Putin, to an additional six years in prison. According to The New York Times, "It was a politically tinged decision that undermined President Dmitri Medvodev."[1] Leonid Goman of the Right Cause Party in Russia agreed. "It was obviously a political, not a judicial, decision." He went on to say that in general terms, "corruption is endemic, government power is often abused and senior politicians are rarely, if ever, held accountable for misdeeds."[2]  Clearly, Prime Minister Putin was still very much in control in Russia.  His message was that wealthy businessmen should not interfere in Russian politics. What a contrast to American politics, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United case!  Khodorkovsky was at one time the richest person in Russia, having been one of the oligarchs who bought government assets at bargain prices after the fall of the USSR, but he financed opposition parties in a political system that was anything but democratic.


This case points to the importance of separating a judiciary from executive and legislative branches of government, as in the E.U. and U.S. The fragile nature of a judiciary's credibility can be of dangerous ground even when the branches are separated. But in Russia technically under President Medvodev in 2010, a court doing the bidding of a powerful prime minister (in name only) contributes to the demotion of the credibility of the country's judiciary. Ultimately, the president of a country is charged with presiding over its system of government with an eye towards protecting it as a going concern.  
For example, U.S. President Andrew Jackson in the early 1830's looked out for the viability of the country's federal system by pushing Congress back on its tariff that hurt South Carolina and pushing the latter to repeal its Acts by which federal law could be nullified. He also vetoed a bill that, if enacted, would have allowed Congress to appropriate money for what was really a state road in Missouri. The President's focus was on maintaining the balance between the federal level and that of the member-states that is so important to maintaining a viable federal system in the long term. 
In the case of Russia, the problem concerning the political use of the court was that neither the president nor prime minister were interested in safeguarding the judiciary's long-term viability, for they prostituted it for political expediency. I submit, moreover, that most governments have lacked a presiding president, by which I mean a president who is primarily fixated on maintaining the continued viability of the system of government, including its credibility. It is too easy for voters to elect partisans who are more focused on their respective ideological agendas than putting the system itself first. Similarly, it is too easy for dictators to use all branches of government to consolidate more power for themselves or their party rather than to protect the viability of the branches, including how they are related, rather than to be primarily oriented to presiding over the system as a whole. 

See related essay: "On the Eclipse of Russian Federalism: Implications for the E.U."

1. Clifford Levy, "Russia Extends Prison Sentence of Tycoon 6 Years,” The New York Times, December 31, 2010, p. A1.
2. Ibid.