Mikhail Klimentyev / RIA Novosti Kremlin / Presidential Press Service / AP

Justice in the former Soviet Union has failed

Recent abuses by top prosecutors in Russia and Ukraine point to the corrupt legacy of the Soviet period

February 22, 2016 2:00AM ET

In the Soviet Union, “justice” meant show trials. In the post-Soviet successor states of the 1990s, the judicial system was for sale. But today, justice in most of the former Soviet region is defined by politicized prosecution where who is prosecuted and who is not all depends on power.

Consider the recent British inquiry into the death of former Russian intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko. After British police traced the nuclear trail of the polonium used to kill Litvinenko from London to Moscow, linking it to two Russians, Russia refused to prosecute or extradite either, and even gave one of them a medal.

Faulty justice in the former Soviet Union, however, is not limited to Russia. Whether it’s Georgia’s attempt to silence a critical television network or Azerbaijan’s jailing of journalists, the practice is alive and well. Post-Soviet legal systems are used not to address injustice, but as a political weapon wielded by prosecutors to benefit those in power.

The current dysfunction has deep roots. In the Soviet period, judges and prosecutors were considered to be on the same team and functioned as extensions of government policy. “Justice” in its legal form flowed from the state to the citizen, enforcing the state’s will. It was next to impossible to use it to protect citizens against the state. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, money transformed the system. Suddenly the law, which had always represented power, was the guardian of trillions of dollars worth of business assets.

In recent months, both the Russian and the Ukrainian general prosecutors – Yury Chaika and Viktor Shokin, respectively – have come in for criticism.

Chaika has been under scrutiny for converting his power into cash. An investigation by Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny alleges that Chaika’s family illegally stole millions of dollars in assets from other companies and rigged government tenders, knowing that they would never face prosecution because of Chaika’s position. Chaika denies the allegations, and has even suggested that Navalny is putting them forward on behalf of British-American investor William Browder.

Browder’s name touches on another dark chapter in post-Soviet justice. In 2006, corrupt Russian officials raided his Hermitage Capital Management and claimed $230 million in fraudulent tax refunds. The fund’s accountant, Sergei Magnitsky, tried to expose the fraud and was detained for 11 months without trial. He eventually died in detention and was posthumously convicted of the fraud.

In Russia, justice is not so much about enforcing the law as determining who can break it. In their most recent video, the activist punk rock group Pussy Riot targets Chaika, rapping: “I run the war on corruption here, or to be precise, I run the corruption here.”

Russia, Ukraine and the other former Soviet republics face the same problem: Justice is for the powerful, not the powerless, and that is why it fails.

In Ukraine, prosecution is also deeply intertwined with corruption. The general prosecutor under ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Viktor Pshonka, became fabulously wealthy during his time office. When protestors seized his house after he fled they found it filled with antiques, gold and images of him posing as Napoleon or Julius Caesar. Since then little has changed with prosecutors who earn a few hundred dollars a month having been caught carrying bags stuffed with diamonds, jetting around the world, and driving cars worth tens of thousands of dollars, all with no plausible source for that income other the corruption.

Criticism of Ukraine’s General Prosecutor Shokin, however, focuses on his failure to do his job rather than outright corruption. On Shokin’s watch, ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, accused of stealing tens of billions from the government, was dropped from Interpol’s wanted list after the Ukrainian General Prosecutor’s Office failed to provide evidence of his crimes. The European Court of Justice also found that there were no grounds for sanctions on Ukraine’s former Prime Minister Mykola Azarov after the prosecutor’s office failed to produce more than a letter stating the intention to investigate him. The most damning lapse of justice, however, has been the failure to jail those behind the killing of protestors two years ago on Ukraine’s central square, the Maidan, during the uprising against Yanukovych. Those failures to prosecute the once powerful enraged Ukrainians.

Why do Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko allow these prosecutors to remain in power? In Putin’s case the answer is simple: Power is not to be questioned. Any case of an official being brought down from below would set a dangerous precedent. There are also certain perks intended to come with higher positions. In the Soviet Union, being at the top meant receiving elite apartments, vacations and goods. Now it means being allowed to steal the money that lets you buy elite apartments, vacations and goods yourself.

For Poroshenko, it’s more complicated. He wants to use the prosecutor’s office as a political weapon. A loyal prosecutor gives a president additional power, allowing corruption charges to be used as bargaining chip in a never-ending game of political deals. Only this week when Shokin’s unpopularity threatened to collapse the Ukrainian government was Poroshenko willing to risk that advantage, saying that Shokin should resign. As always Shokin followed Poroshenko’s lead, but with his letter of resignation yet to be accepted and the prosecutor’s office saying he may return, critics worry that it is all an elaborate feign.

Ultimately, though, Russia, Ukraine and the other former Soviet republics face the same problem: Justice is for the powerful, not the powerless, and that is why it fails.

Ian Bateson is an independent correspondent in Ukraine. He has written for Al Jazeera, Reuters, VICE and die Zeit Online, among others.



The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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