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The Connection Between the Lawyer Presidents is More Curious than Medvedev Seems to Have Realized
When they first met, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev played up the common legal background he shares with U.S. President Barack Obama. And despite question marks over the veracity of Medvedev’s claim to have studied a “legal reference work” authored by Obama, the influence of the Russian president’s legal schooling is palpable, in his public statements, policies, and above all his appointments. But is his habit of hiring like-minded colleagues really a bid to consolidate the rule of law, or just good old-fashioned nepotism?
Relations between U.S. and Russian presidents are full of paradoxes. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, each new Russian president has been paired with a new U.S. president – Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, and now Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev. The previous two presidential pairs featured an unlikely personal bond, which nevertheless failed to prevent tensions escalating between the countries.
Obama, after his first meetings with Medvedev, seemed to deliberately avoid any sentimentality, emphasizing that he wants a relationship based on shared national interests, not personalities. In fact, Medvedev’s response to Obama was more personal than vice versa, inspired by his and Obama’s common background as legal scholars.
Following the two presidents’ first meeting at the G20 summit in London in March, Medvedev commented that “we have read the same books.” Following a bilateral meeting at the G8 summit in L’Aquila on July 10, the footnote swapping seemed to have gone one step further: Medvedev said he had previously studied a “legal reference work” co-authored by Obama. “This is curious to say the least,” Medvedev remarked.
The issue is actually even more curious than Medvedev seems to have realized: Obama, as a legal scholar, published nothing, except one research note to the Harvard Law Review as a graduate. Medvedev’s own publication record is far more impressive than Obama’s – having co-authored a standard work on Russia’s civil code in the 1990s.
What publication was Medvedev referring to, then? It could be that he meant the Harvard Law Review. Obama famously edited the prestigious periodical between 1980 and 1990 as its first black editor. These were also the years when Medvedev was completing his doctorate in St. Petersburg.
However, according to a number of sources, it is extremely unlikely that the journal was available at St. Petersburg State University until the late 1990s. Also it is unclear why Harvard Law Review could have been interesting for a Russian legal scholar at that time.
More likely is that Medvedev confused Obama’s editorial position at Harvard Law Review with his later teaching post at University of Chicago. University of Chicago law school publishes the famous journal “Law and Economics.” “Law and Economics” is the flagship journal of the neo-institutional economic school that analyses an economy according to its legal institutional framework, and as such is a key journal in Medvedev’s field of commercial law. Obama’s faculty friend and now top economic advisor, Austan Goolsbee, was lead editor of the journal in the 1990s.
Neo-institutional economics became mainstream in Russia in the second half of the 1990s, as it became clear that macroeconomic stabilization and privatization did not work if an economy lacked efficient laws and institutions. As a result, government economic reforms started to focus on the legal sphere. This shift was embodied by the appointment of legal scholar German Gref as a long-serving economy minister between 2000 and 2007. Gref studied and taught alongside Medvedev in the St. Petersburg law faculty in the early 1990s.
Medvedev must have studied this school of thought – and may (wrongly) think Obama edited its foremost journal when he taught at the University of Chicago. In fact Obama taught constitutional law, and was concerned with issues of race and citizens’ rights quite distant from Medvedev’s scholarly interests.
Civiliki: Network or norms?
Whatever the truth, Medvedev’s response to Obama demonstrates how strong his identity as a civil law scholar remains, despite years of working in the Kremlin and government. This is an identity he shares with other top officials and friends, nicknamed the civiliki, to distinguish them from Vladimir Putin’s ex-KGB network of siloviki.
This identity was underscored last week by a visit to his alma mater, St. Petersburg University’s law faculty, posted on his video blog on the Kremlin website, where Medvedev reminisces about his years studying and teaching there. Ilya Nikiforov, an associate lecturer at the civil law department, pointed out that “Medvedev even contributed a chapter for a civil law textbook, co-authored by members of St. Petersburg Law School, after having become president last year.”
Medvedev’s background in law does not just serve him intellectually, but as a source of personnel appointments. Besides Gref, who now heads Russia’s largest bank, the state-owned Sberbank, the new Minister of Justice Alexander Konovalov also studied and taught alongside Medvedev in Petersburg in the 1990s, where he lectured on Roman and civil law.
From among Medvedev’s undergraduate classmates (class of 87), Konstantin Chuichenko heads the Central Control Directorate in the presidential administration, Nikolai Vinnichenko is presidential envoy to the Urals Federal District, Artur Parfenchikov heads the State Bailiffs Service, Nikolai Gutsan is deputy prosecutor general, and Valeriya Adamova chairs the Moscow Arbitration Court. About a dozen other colleagues and classmates are scattered through the top echelons of the state as well as Gazprom.
Most civil among the civiliki, and the closest to Medvedev, is his longtime friend, former classmate, faculty colleague and textbook co-author, Anton Ivanov. Ivanov was catapulted to head Russia’s Supreme Arbitration Court, the country’s court of final instance in commercial disputes, also with prerogatives in norm setting, in 2005.
Like Medvedev, Ivanov has retained close ties to academia, as scientific director of the law faculty of Moscow’s prestigious Higher School of Economics. According to deputy dean of the faculty, Natalia Rostovtseva, Ivanov’s position is not a formality. “He plays an active role in the life of the faculty,” said Rostovtseva. “He teaches the second year course on the civil code, and examines. Moreover, he insists that students get practical experience by attending sessions of the Supreme Arbitration Court and completing internships there.” Ivanov himself complains that he now only has time for three or four publications per year.
Ivanov is notable for having taken a principled position against siloviki policy in the state sector of the economy. In June he called for a moratorium on the creation of state corporations such as giant defense sector and engineering holding Russian Technologies, headed by leading silovik Sergei Chemezov, a personal friend of Vladimir Putin’s. Ivanov argued that Russia’s civil code does not envisage any such hybrid form of private and state property, and demanded “common norms for all legal entities.”
Likewise, Medvedev’s rhetoric against “legal nihilism” and his calls to strengthen the rule of law obviously draw on his roots in jurisprudence.
On the other hand, the civiliki network might turn into a “jobs for the boys” club, ensuring the loyalty to Medvedev of what are meant to be independent institutions. On July 7, for instance, a former St. Petersburg law faculty member, Sergei Mavrin, was proposed by Medvedev as deputy chairman of the constitutional court. Prior to this, new legal amendments empowered the president to propose candidates, whereas previously judges had voted on new members. Mavrin is now widely tipped to head the constitutional court when current head Valery Zorkin steps down in 2012.
So the crucial test for Medvedev’s presidency could be whether his declared interest in strengthening legal norms is actually implemented, or whether his academic background will simply serve him as a source of cadres, equivalent to Vladimir Putin’s siloviki network.
Similarly in U.S.-Russian relations, a reset will only work if Obama’s and Medvedev’s shared legal background helps them move ahead with strengthening the rule of law in the international sphere. If their legal interest is simply used as a basis to build a personal relationship, the history of the previous two presidential pairs, where personal friendship failed to prevent escalation of Russian-U.S. tension, may be doomed to repeat itself.
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