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Russia Profile
March 3, 2009
Laws Made to Be Broken
From Getting Proper Registrations to Storing Eggs in a Certain Manner, Russia Has Laws that Are Easier to Circumvent than to Follow
Comment by Shaun Walker
Shaun Walker is the Moscow correspondent of the Independent.

When taking the presidential office, Dmitry Medvedev brought with him a promise to instil respect for the rule of law. But the law is often bizarre, draconian, and serves no clear purpose. Legal Nihilism will be difficult to root out as long as both private citizens and government officials alike find it easier to solicit and bribe their way around the law, than uphold and abide by it.

Two things have happened over the last couple of days that have got me thinking about Dmitry Medvedevs calls to encourage a respect for the rule of law in Russia, and end legal nihilism in the country. One of them was Mikhail Khodorkovskys appearance before a Moscow court today, the start of a possibly lengthy trial that could see him go down for another 22 years. The other was when a friend of mine had the alarm in his Moscow apartment tripped by a visitor, which resulted in the police showing up, who promptly solicited a bribe of 500 roubles from him for not having a Moscow registration.

These two events are obviously rather different in terms of scale and political importance, but the registration issue, rather than the trial of Khodorkovsky, might be the place for Medvedev to start his drive to improve respect for the law. Lets for a minute assume that Medvedev is actually sincere in his desire to impose a real legal system on the country. Lets sidestep the cynical but fairly convincing suggestion that a real drive against corruption is meaningless, if swathes of the top ruling class are basically acting as a kleptocracy, creaming off cash into Swiss bank accounts. Lets take him at his word.

If weare going to take Medvedev seriously, then what exactly can he do? Lawyers for Mikhail Khodorkovsky have painted his retrial as the perfect place for the new president to send a signal that he is serious about rule of law. But in the current climate, an acquittal for the Yukos chief seems fantastically unlikely; having created a martyr, it would be an odd move to let him out just at the point when your government is convulsed by crisis and infighting.

So were left with starting at the bottom. How, one wonders, are people supposed to respect the law, when the law is so utterly ridiculous that it forces people to break it? The registration law is a case in point. Has any crime ever been prevented or solved by having the registration system? What good has the registration system ever done, except for allow various crooked cops to buy nice presents for their girlfriends?

My friend, having paid the fine, will this week be soliciting an illegal registration from someone he knows who registers dozens of people at some mystery flat somewhere in southern Moscow. The system is slightly easier to navigate than it was a couple of years ago, but its still a hassle, as the endless ads on the metro offering semi-legal or illegal registration to migrants testify.

Its a small issue, but an important one. What the registration issue does is quite literally force people to break the law. There is little point in jumping through endless hoops to follow a meaningless law, when a phone call and a 500 rouble note can solve the problem with little fuss. The law is ridiculous, and easily circumvented, so the obvious thing to do is circumvent it. This then has the knock-on effect of making the law something that you abide by when its convenient, and circumvent when it isnt.

The same thing happens in all walks of life. Talk to any small business owner, or restaurant owner, and theyll bemoan the litany of absurd and unmaintainable regulations to which they are theoretically supposed to conform. I was told by one restaurant owner that by law he was required to have a special room to store eggs. Obviously, he was faced with two options either build a special room to store eggs, or pay the health and safety inspector a few thousand roubles on his next visit. Guess which one he chose.

How can people be expected to respect the law in general when they are forced to break it in specific circumstances? When you start regarding the law as something you can pick and choose about, its the start of a slippery slope.

When the policeman asks you for your registration, or when the safety inspector asks the restaurant owner to prove that his kitchen conforms to 1,500 food safety regulations, or when the tax police visit a company and ask to see the records, or for that matter when Khodorkovsky goes before a court on embezzlement while other oligarchs wander around freely with their ill-gotten gains, what is played out is a total farce.

They know its a farce. You know its a farce. You know that they know that its a farce. And so on. While things continue like this, any genuine respect for the law is impossible to foster. Rooting out criminality, corruption and bureaucratic morass in this country is never going to happen overnight. But getting rid of a few laws that appear designed to be broken would be a good place to start.