Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Rule of Law Comes to Russia?

Ernest Partridge

March, 2002

On the final day of the twentieth century, Boris Yeltsin resigned as the first President of the post-Soviet Russian Republic, turning his office over to his chosen successor, Vladimir Putin. In March, Acting President Putin will stand for election.

When a balanced history of contemporary Russia is written, another event which took place in the final week of 1999, along with a similar event in July, may well be regarded as more significant. These were the acquittals first of Grigorii Pasko in Vladivostok, and, last week, of Aleksandr Nikitin in St. Petersburg. Sadly, these events have attracted little notice in the Western media.

The fact that both Pasko and Nikitin are environmental activists is of interest to the global community of environmentalists. Of greater historical significance is the fact that both individuals prevailed over the Russian internal security apparatus for the first time in the entire history of both the Soviet and the successor Russian governments. They did so by appealing to the protection of Federal and International law.

Thanks to the letter of that law, along with widespread support from within and outside of Russia, and the decision of two courageous judges, Pasko and Nikitin are now free men. And the rule of law has exhibited supremacy over political and bureaucratic power.

With our tradition of reliance on the rule of law, it is easy for us to overlook the significance of the Pasko and Nikitin cases, and of the extraordinary courage of the defendants, their advocates within Russia (notably the Socio-Ecological Union), and the judges in the case.

In our fortunate country, we take the "rule of law" for granted perhaps too much for granted. (And that is topic enough for another essay). When abused by our fellow citizens, we tell them "I'll see you in court," confident that the courts are the best means available to the ordinary citizen for attaining justice. We also go about our business, confident that the bounds of permitted behavior is "on the books," and that we will not be charged and convicted onex post facto laws (enacted "after the fact"). And most significantly, our laws protect us from what Hamlet called "the insolence of office." As Richard Nixon learned to his sorrow, not even the President of the United States is above the law. The law did not allow Nixon to censor the publication of "the Pentagon Papers" (a case remarkably similar to those of Pasko and Nikitin), and it did not allow him to conceal the evidence that eventually forced him from office.

The government of the Russian Federation is only a decade old, and many of the members of the oppressive Soviet regime hold office in the new government. The "Federal Security Bureau" is in a discomforting sense, a continuation of the Soviet KGB. And the new Acting President, Vladimir Putin is the former chief of the FSB the same agency that arrested and prosecuted Pasko and Nikitin. Thus in Russia "the rule of law" is, to say the least, tenuous and experimental. These "whistleblowers" acted, and were subsequently defended, with no settled assurance that "the rule of law" would protect them. In this sense, Pasko and Nikitin were less comparable to Daniel Ellsberg (who released "the Pentagon Papers") with his protection under the US Constitution, than to Andrei Sakharov who also acted on principle with no assurance of the protection of the law. Pasko and Nikitin thus put their lives and freedom on the line, with at times poor prospects of victory. These were two noble gambles in defense of principle for which the Russian people, and indeed all freedom-loving peoples of the world, owe both individuals a debt of enduring gratitude.

Other heros in these inspiring cases include are our friends in the Socio-Ecological Union. Read the accounts of the Pasko and Nikitin cases in The SEU TIMES, collected at this site in a single "Archive" Edition. There you will find candid accounts of these cases along with statements of principle in defense of Pasko and Nikitin, and in condemnation of the FSB. Now consider the place of origin of these publications. The activists of the SEU believe, apparently with some justification, that an "open society" under the rule of law may at last and for the first time have come to Russia. But these published statements also display amazing courage, affirmation and hope. For much less defiance and criticism of the government and its security apparatus, many of the fathers and grandfathers of these SEU activists earned themselves trips to the Gulag or, still worse, to the cellars of the Lubianka. In the homes of our Russian friends, we have seen old photos of relatives who paid the ultimate price for their defiance of Soviet decrees. Each statement today of criticism of the government, however benign and tolerant that government may now appear, must be haunted by the spectres of Derzhinsky and Beria.

Two additional individuals deserve our commendation: Judges Dmitri Savushkin and Segei Golets who presided, respectively, over the Pasko and Nikitin trials, and ruled for their acquittal. Note the following from the July issue of the SEU TIMES (with emphases by The Gadfly):

For the first time in Russian history, a Federal Security Bureau espionage case has failed. According to the Russian Pacific Military Court, [Grigorii] Pasko has been cleared of the charge of espionage, but is guilty of "misapplying his position." The court has ruled that he should be given amnesty. The judge has also issued a special document listing all the offenses against the law by the FSB's investigating bodies discovered during the process.

And in the December 30, 1999, issue of The New York Times, we read:

"The use of these orders is a direct violation of the Constitution of the Russian Federation," Judge Golets said. He also said the federal case ran counter to the European convention on human rights, to which Russia is a signatory.

In short, for the first time in history, the Russian courts have asserted the supremacy of the law over the security apparatus of the Russian government.

However, these victories reside on insubstantial ground. The NY Times also reports that the FSB has the right to appeal the Nikitin case. It is likely that the Acting President is under pressure by his former FSB colleagues to do just that. He must also be made to feel the countervailing pressure of world opinion. This latter opinion could be effective, as Putin has announced that he seeks to gain "respect" in the community of nations for the new Russian government.

Of late, the US media and officials have been alarmingly critical of the Russian government, as we detect whiffs of cold-war rhetoric creeping into our media. In addition, as we have reported at this site, much of the official and commercial American involvement with the Russians in the last decade has been arrogant and ill-informed. The US has approached the Russians with an attitude, well-summarized by our friend Svet Zabelin of the SEU: "In general, ordinary Americans look upon Russia as a failed United States - that all we need to succeed is to be more like you. So they come to us with schemes that might be useful in the United States (and perhaps not, for that matter), and with little regard for our historical and cultural contexts." (See our "Conversation with Sviatoslav Zabelin").

In August, 1998, the New York Times published a commendable editorial in defense of the then-beleaguered Alexander Nikitin. In contrast, the report of his acquittal was lost in the back pages of the New York Times and The Washington Post. We have heard no mention of either case in the broadcast media not on public television's News Hour, or CNN. (Our search of the NPR archives recovered a February, 1999 report that Pasko had "little hope" of a favorable outcome of his trial. There was no subsequent NPR report of his acquittal in July). This is regrettable, for the acquittals of Pasko and Nikitin, and the implied promise of an emerging rule of law in Russia, is news of extraordinary importance to Russia and to the international community of nations.

The courageous individuals and organizations in Russia who took part in this triumph of freedom and justice the defendants, Pasko and Nikitin, the leaders of the nascent civil society who suported them, and the judges who ruled for acquittal have all earned the admiration, gratitude, and continuing support of all who cherish freedom and justice.

The struggle for the rule of law in Russia continues, with the outcome still in doubt, despite these very significant victories. (Thus the question-mark on our title to this essay). Support for the heroic Russian reformers, inside and outside of the government, must continue unabated.

We await, with some uncertainty, the expression of such commendation and support from our political leaders and our media.

We urge you to read these accounts of the Pasko and Nikitin case in the SEU TIMES and be amazed! The current issue reports a very similar case in Belarus that of Prof. Yuri Bandazhevsky. Read further in the SEU TIMES and you will find reports of numerous appeals to the courts, by ordinary Russian citizens and NGO environmental groups, for injunctions against governmental and commercial assaults upon the environment.

Postscript (2009):  I had the great privilege of meeting Alexandr Nikitin, and sitting next to him at a conference table at the Wilson Center in Washington DC, November, 2001.  The Conference, on "Environment and Human Rights in the Russian Federation," was jointly sponsored by The Center for Democracy (USA) and Center for Russian Environmental Policy (Moscow).  Follow these links for my paper at the conference and my report of the conference.

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .