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Official website of the President of Russia

Transcripts   /

Address to a Justice Ministry board meeting

January 31, 2000, Moscow

Vladimir Putin:

Distinguished Yury Yakovlevich,

Ladies and gentlemen,

The people who are in this room today are driven in what they do by two key concepts: statehood and the rule of law.

These concepts have been familiar for quite some time: after all, Russian justice and the Russian state go back well before 1917 or 1991. This means that, whatever we do today, whether legal reform or state development, we must be aware of the inborn Russian tradition of justice and the rule of law. We must remember that the dictatorship of the law is the only dictatorship we can agree to be governed by.

This is my third meeting in this month with my colleagues whose direct duty is to uphold the rule of law in the country. At the Interior Ministry board meeting and the meeting with judges, we discussed the current state of Russia’s legal system in great detail and, as you are probably aware, it does not look satisfactory.

The effectiveness of state governance is clearly and directly related to the robustness of the state’s legal framework. Government authorities and justice and law enforcement agencies are all links in a single chain. This chain, however, has been neglected, and now it is slack. It is therefore little wonder that reforms are so slow and difficult to implement, that signals from government officials fail to be received on the ground.

I do not think that any of you need to be persuaded that in a rising nation, strict obedience to the law is as important as an economic strategy or social programmes. Nor need I persuade you that all three should go hand in hand, working as one coherent mechanism of reform. That is the only possible way to improve people’s lives in the new Russia.


Ladies and gentlemen:

Had we met here several years ago, the Justice Ministry would hardly have been named among the nation’s key agencies because it had always done important yet routine and often little-noticed work. However, the country has undergone profound changes that have pushed your ministry to the forefront of state governance.

Novelties, such as a real multiparty system, independent regional lawmaking practices and the reform of the penal system, have been directly responsible for the changes in the nature and volume of your work.

In recent years, the Justice Ministry has been taking on one new function after another, finally evolving into a conglomerate of agencies that previously reported to other entities. It has brought together, under one ministerial umbrella, people who serve differently, are paid differently, have different pension schemes and even wear different uniforms. Yet, despite all the difficulties, you are supposed to shoulder this great load of work, acting simultaneously as experts, controllers, registrars and lawmakers.


Your expert assessment of suggestions for the government’s lawmaking programmes and plans is of prime importance. The importance of lawmaking and the modern goals of legal reform have repeatedly been highlighted; one example is the first meeting of the new State Duma.

It is clear to all of us that the laws that are being made ought to help to build an economically developed and politically stable Russia.

However, we are still faltering because of the lack of a clear and well-developed legal foundation that can keep up with the times. Surely you do not need to be reminded that many of our laws today, especially the social ones, go back as far as the early 1960s. To live under one government system using the laws of a different government system is absurd, if you think about it.

I ought to remind you that the new State Duma inherited about 2,000 bills from the previous Duma, some of which have not even been considered by a plenary meeting. Some crucial constitutional laws have not yet been adopted; the Land and Labour Codes, the Codes of Civil and Criminal Procedure, and other fundamental acts are in urgent need of updating and adoption. The codification process must also be improved.

The conclusion is self-evident: Russia still lacks a well-considered state lawmaking policy that can stand the test of time, a unified concept of legal reform, and an approved state development programme, at a time when its integrity and potential rely heavily on well-planned lawmaking, monitoring compliance with the law and the division of powers between the federal and regional governments, and harmonising regional constitutions, laws and ordinances with their federal counterparts and with the Russian constitution. We need to be aware that this harmonisation will not come automatically, without the clearly expressed will of the federal centre.

This is not to say that a crisis is looming, but we also must not turn a blind eye to the difficulties of ensuring the rule of the constitution and federal legislation.

Your ministry has reported that about 20% of current regional acts violate the constitution and Russian laws, sometimes resulting in serious offences such as restricting human rights and freedoms and undermining the state’s economic foundations and constitutional principles.

In recent years, some regions have dangerously attempted, with more and more frequency, to “improve”, as one might put it, federal acts governing the administration of justice, or to withdraw prosecutors and regional Interior Ministry and Justice Ministry officials from federal jurisdiction, or trespass on federal turf in tax and finance legislation.

Why such trends occur is a subject for a separate discussion. What I would like to focus on now is the fact that the trends themselves, as well as the larger collision between regional and constitutional norms they underlie, is clearly not some little nuisance. If unchecked, they might accumulate and in time create a critical mass capable of destroying the country’s entire constitutional space.


Ladies and gentlemen:

I do understand that the goodwill and professional skills of justice officials are not always enough to resolve these issues. The causes of your “institutionalized inferiority” are clear as well: the current situation, in which the Justice Ministry’s pronouncements are not binding upon the regions, just cannot be called normal. You are also right to insist that justice officials should have the right to appeal to the courts for the cancellation of regional acts found to violate federal law. Another issue that has yet to be resolved is who should run a database of regional legislation. Currently, information on local legislation is provided only partially and after much delay, especially if the senders are aware that this legislation contains violations of federal law.

Even so, there are many things that the Justice Ministry could have already done. For example, the Constitutional Court has yet to receive a single government inquiry that you have helped to draft; there are also few calls for the suspension of non-compliant regional acts, with most of such initiatives still coming from the General Prosecutor's Office. There have been many discussions on this, and they have resulted in relevant instructions – but brought about little change.

Another problem comes from agency regulations that violate or misinterpret laws, presidential decrees and government resolutions. These cases are fewer now than before but they are certainly not rare.

Ministries and agencies often fail to register their internal regulations with your ministry, and you need to be tough to make sure that they do.

I would like to draw your attention to yet another issue: Russia still lacks a unified corporate registration procedure. At a time when the State Duma has yet to consider a relevant law, most regions run their own corporate registration rules, which, firstly, leads to legal inconsistency and, secondly, creates fertile ground for corruption and abuse of power. The lack of a unified registration procedure impedes taxation, other financial activities, and actions against the shadow economy. It is also one reason why we still do not have a unified state property register.

While we certainly must move faster to pass a law on a government procedure for corporate registration, we can minimize the damage even now – if you more proactively engage with regional governments and your own regional officials.


Now I would like to turn to some specific issues the ministry is facing.

Relatively recently, the penal system was put under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry as part of the obligations assumed by Russia when it joined the Council of Europe.

Though it would still be premature to carry out a comprehensive assessment on how the system works in these new conditions, the first results look encouraging: the number of crimes committed inside penitentiaries is down, and the effectiveness of communication with the prosecutors and other law enforcement officials is up.

At the same time, many problems that have been piling up for decades, such as persistent underfunding, crowded detention centres and prisons, and appalling sanitary and epidemiological conditions, have yet to be solved. Such conditions are unacceptable for the civilised nation we claim to be. Again, I would like to highlight that the penal system will be consistently watched.

Increasing the budget for building new and renovating existing detention centres and prisons, and for opening up new employment opportunities for the inmates, has been a good start. Yet, there is still a long road ahead, and without a responsible attitude on your part, the conditions in detention centres and prisons will not improve and will not meet our standards. And, of course, punishing and preventing crime should also be done through measures other than detention.


Ladies and gentlemen:

One speech will never cover all the aspects and issues relevant to justice officials. However, I do not think I would be doing the right thing if I failed to mention the people serving in the Justice Ministry.

In any agency, real results and power come less from its jurisdiction and vested authority than from the professional performance, compliance, and commitment of its people. Your service includes over 380,000 men and women.

One issue that should be highlighted is the high turnover, especially in regional leadership, where nearly 40% of chiefs and deputy chiefs have left in the past three years, often with no replacement in sight.

I also think it is high time we had a law harmonising the procedures for working in the Justice Ministry.

It is understood that the Justice Ministry’s system of operation is still in the making. It is not just about different functions coming together, which has already happened. It is about proven management practices and well-considered personnel policies in the Justice Ministry. These issues call for immediate action.


Ladies and gentlemen:

For a decade, we have been talking about building “a nation ruled by law”. However, ordinary citizens will judge our rule of law by what they see in the courtroom or hear from their lawyer, notary, or lawmaker.

Without the rule of law, freedom will inevitably turn into chaos and savagery, in which, on a daily basis, the government and the legislators might make important decisions only to find some of those decisions lost on their way down to the ground, and others misinterpreted or openly obstructed and generally just left on paper. The result will be a stalled and extremely inefficient government machine.

When the people do not believe in the rule of law, there is no one but ourselves to blame. There is no one but ourselves to blame if people fear being left “face to face” with lawyers, be it a criminal case in a detective’s office or a simple civil lawsuit in a courtroom. We have no one to shift the blame to when the government is accused of lacking accountability and the state of having no reasonable power – a power that is not blind, a power with a clear vision, a power that is smart, competent, and fair.

It is our duty to bring a feeling of stability and peace back to our people. They must not worry about themselves or their loved ones because of rampant crime. They must not be afraid that an organised gang will come and take their business from them. They must be certain that the state is a good guardian of their security.

This can be done only by making Russia strong. However, a really strong state is a state in which personal rights and freedoms are upheld, where everyone is equal before the law and everyone complies with the law.

It is our imperative and our duty to build such a state. The Justice Ministry, the mainstay of Russia’s justice, is an important part of that.

You have many things to rely upon and many shining examples to look back to. The history of justice agencies would be unimaginable without many prominent names and forward-looking personalities, as well as the authority and excellence of contemporary legal experts who have worked at justice agencies.

In conclusion, I would like to thank all justice officials for their determination and responsibility, and for their hard work and commitment.

I wish you success, and thank you for your time.

January 31, 2000, Moscow