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Why does the president suggest breaking the law?

Dmitri MedvedevNikolai Zlobin is the President of the Center for Russian and Eurasian Development (CREDO) at the World Security Institute (WSI).

In the last couple of days Dmitry Medvedev gave two speeches on national security and war on terrorism. Some of his points raise concerns.

To tell the truth, I like what President Medvedev has been saying recently concerning several pressing issues in Russia, such as the question of interethnic relations within the country, the situation with war against terrorism and unreliability of a number of officials, who are responsible for making sure that this war is going well. I hear a lot of meaningful suggestions and ideas coming from the president that I'd like to see come to fruition. Also I enjoy hearing about Dmitry Medvedev making unexpected visits/security revisions to Kievskiy Train Station or Vnukovo airport, catching local police off guard and putting them in an embarrassing situation. I understand that these visits somewhat remind us of populism of Boris Yeltsin's era and I also understand that one can't rely on such "raids" in order to change things for the best, since a systematic approach is required for dealing with problems of security. However, as history shows, such actions by the country's leader not only get him points in public opinion but also cause officials to feel nervous and insecure, meaning that they try to do at least something right, so that they don't fall victim to the justified wraith of the leader.

This week Dmitry Medvedev first gave a speech on the national coordination meeting of heads of law enforcement agencies, and the next day suddenly flew to Vladikavkaz to hold a meeting of the National Antiterrorism Committee, during which he also gave a speech and took part in the discussion. I think that the fact that he made all the ministers of security fly to North Osetia, was a right decision. It's also important to note that Dmitry Medvedev found time in his schedule to visit the cemetery in Beslan and lay a wreath at the graves of victims of the 2004 Beslan school terrorist attack, which in my opinion is very commendable.

Both of the speeches given by Dmitry Medvedev ­ in Moscow and Vladikavkaz - prove that the president is absolutely dissatisfied with the work of all the security and a number of other ministries in their attempts of fighting and providing protection from terrorism as well as battling organized crime. I guess there isn't a single person in Russia today, aside maybe, for a couple of high-ranking officials, who wouldn't think that the president has more than enough reasons to be upset over the current situation in that sphere. But in this article I would like to play Devil's advocate and note a couple of other points made by Medvedev in his speeches, which I found questionable, to say the least.

First, on the meeting of heads of law enforcement the president said: "Mr Chaika [Prosecutor General Yury Chaika], I am not sure if you have yet got to the bottom of who exactly owns Domodedovo Airport? The owner seems evident at first glance, but when you start to look into the details it turns out that the owner is hidden behind various beneficiary assets. And yet we are talking here about one of our biggest airports, which handles a huge number of planes, not to mention the tragedy that took place there. So, what is the situation? Do you have a report ready? You can brief us later." As Itar-Tass reports the prosecutor general started to nod after which Medvedev agreed to listen to the report at a later point, in private.

I see it as a very dangerous turn in the discussion of war with terrorism. First of all, it seems that the president is publicly doubting the legitimacy of the ownership of Domodedovo, although it had been proved numerous times in courts. Everyone still remembers attempts to deny the fact that Domodedovo Airport lawfully belongs to a private company (which also managed to transform it into one of the best airports in the country in just a couple of years), and attempts to pass the rights of ownership to someone "closer". Second, while raising the question publicly, Medvedev agreed to hear the answer only in private, so the public only got to hear the doubts and questions of the president with no answer and resolution from Prosecutor General. What was the president's reason for doing that? Third, it's unclear how the issue of Domodedovo's ownership is related to fighting terrorism. It's hard not to think that the national security discussion is only a reason for raising that topic again. Finally, do Medvedev's words mean that there might be another wave of redistribution of property in the near future?

I really hope it's just a product of my imagination and the president meant something totally different by turning the discussion that way.

In his speech in Vladikavkaz Dmitry Medvedev was quoted saying: "Another subject raised today was that of the court cases in Kabardino-Balkaria and other places. I want the Presidential Executive Office and representatives of the law enforcement agencies to examine together with the legal community the issue of additional measures to ensure that court proceedings do take place, including perhaps by using more effective models for holding court hearings outside the regions where the crimes were committed. Look too into the possibilities for holding people accused of crimes in custody outside the region where the crimes were committed, in order to prevent them from trying to influence the course of justice, including through influencing jurors, witnesses, and victims, and also so as to prevent any other criminal attempts."

If you ask me, it's impossible not to agree with such an approach ­ it's perfectly correct. However I don't quite understand why the president addresses his administration instead of legislature, which can easily provide law-enforcement agencies with legal base for dealing with such issue.

But after that Medvedev said something even more peculiar: "I think that in the situation we have the complete right to allow ourselves to step away from even the criminal procedural laws' usual provisions. We should stop looking at these provisions as a "sacred cow". If they are creating problems and stopping us from dispensing justice effectively, we need to take the steps needed to adapt them to the current circumstances in our country. People will understand this. This does not run counter to the fundamental values cemented in our Constitution. I hope the representatives of the Federal Assembly will support me in this."

It's surprising to hear the call to stop treating the procedural law as a "sacred cow" from Dmitry Medvedev, whose main goal of presidency originally was to create a true rule of law in Russia. I don't even need to comment on this. In public opinion Medvedev is seen as a strict follower of the letter and spirit of the law. He's been intentionally posing as one since acquiring the highest position in the country, so why would he want to damage his image and reputation in such a way?

One of the golden rules of politics is that by definition everything that the president says in public should be intentional. Every word, comment, joke or improvisation is a product of the hard work of the president's team ­ his advisors, consultants and PR people. Whatever president says must be understood exactly, without any possibility for misinterpretation and so on. I really hope that in the second case, Medvedev just made an unsuccessful attempt at suggesting to revise the legal system and not that we should stop treating the law as a "sacred cow". Otherwise, contrary to president's words, I don't think people will understand that. But with the first issue, concerning the ownership of Domodedovo, I'm still unsure how we should interpret the president.

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