February 26, 2009
A New Broom for Old Dust
Anton Ivanov Emerges as Medvedev’s New Cleaning Tool for Russian Courts
By Roland Oliphant
A ruling by the body that appoints judges to strip a senior judge of her authority on charges of corruption is a victory for Dmitry Medvedev’s reformers. But coming nearly a year after the first accusations were made, the message is blurred. The decision comes too late to demonstrate that the reformers “mean business.”
Lydmila Maykova was something of a high flier. Until last week’s decision, she was the head of the Moscow Regional Arbitration Court. And in her 37 years on the bench, she has received four state awards. She presided over several high-profile cases, one of which the dispute over the ownership of Domodedovo airport apparently led to her downfall.
The case against her was connected to her acquisition in 2004 of an apartment at a rate below that of the market. She approached Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov for help in acquiring an apartment for herself and her daughter. She subsequently managed to exchange her original apartment for two apartments, one of which was larger than the original. She is also said to have acquired another apartment in a luxury residential complex built by the developer Donstroi for $1,200 per square meter. That was less than half the estimated market price of $2,500 to $4,200 per square meter.
In itself, this may not be a bad thing. But as an arbitration court judge, Maykova regularly heard cases involving property developers and the municipal government. Maykova claims that she asked Luzhkov to help her move because she had received threats in connection with the Domodedovo dispute over which she was presiding at the time. The Supreme Qualification Board of Judges, though, was not impressed. In a secret ballot on February 19, the commission voted to remove her from her post as chair of the Moscow Regional Arbitration Court, and stripped her of her professional qualifications.
And about time. The man credited with bringing her down, Anton Ivanov, who as Chairman of the Federal High Arbitration Court is the chief of the arbitration system, first asked the Qualification Commission to dismiss her in July last year. It has taken until now to get the decision he wanted.
It is partly because of Ivanov that the case gained such attention. A specialist in human rights law and a close friend of President Dmitry Medvedev (the two studied together at Leningrad State University’s law faculty, and later went into business together with another classmate, Ilya Yeliseyev, to found a private law firm, Uranus), he is widely seen as a “new broom” brought in to clean up the courts (Vremya Novosti described him as “a key figure in Medvedev’s court reform”). His eventual victory over Maykova can be seen as both a victory for justice in the fight against corruption, and a victory for the president in his fight for credibility.
Unfortunately, the case shows the frailty of both. Ivanov’s background is more academic than professional, and his forays beyond life as a university professor have led him to the business world (as first deputy director general of Gazprom media) and civil service (at the St Petersburg department of justice), rather than the bench. The fact that progress took so long to make, said Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegies Center, is symptomatic of the conservatism of the judiciary and the suspicion toward Ivanov felt by many on the bench. “Anton Ivanov was appointed from outside, he’s pretty young and he is trying to exercise some control over his own agency. But he is not very powerful there,” Petrov said.
That is a setback for Medvedev, who Petrov believes would like to use the judiciary to build his powerbase and for efforts to clean up the courts. “Lawyers, including Medvedev, have a tendency to think that if there is a problem, all you have to do is come up with a good law,” said Petrov. “But the judiciary is very conservative by definition. Changes have to be very slow and step-by-step.”
If so, perhaps the dogged determination Anton Ivanov has shown in his pursuit of Maykova is just the kind of quality a reformer needs. Kirill Kabanov, the chairman of the National Anti-Corruption Committee, an NGO, believes the case does mark a victory in the fight against corruption. “I hope there will be other such decisions,” he said.
And other tests of the judiciary’s independence are looming. On Thursday the European court of Human rights is due to issue a ruling on the case of another Moscow judge, Olga Kudeshkina, who was dismissed after publicly complaining about constant political pressure on the city's judiciary, the Moscow Times reported Thursday. And in another case already attracting intense scrutiny, imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khordokovsky is set to stand trail for the second time in March.
But those cases may prove even trickier than this one. Maykova was accused of compromising her independence of the judiciary by accepting gifts from private business and the municipal government, and it has taken overly long to resolve. It may prove more difficult to deal with the apparent links between judges and the federal authorities that marred the first Khordokovsky trial. And it is not clear, for example, why though Maykova has lost her job for accepting help from Luzhkov, little has been said about the mayor’s own wrongdoing. “That is the next question,” acknowledged Kabanov, “and it is a good one.”