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University of Iowa News Release


Jan. 27, 2009

Law class examines development of post-Soviet Russian law, economy

As the Russian economy develops and grows stronger, a University of Iowa professor of Russian law says the country's once-impotent legal system is following suit.

"When you have a booming economy, it's important to have a good practice of law, and that's what has happened in Russia the last few years," said Alexander Domrin, a Moscow attorney and UI law professor who is teaching a Russian law class at the College of Law this spring.

Domrin said it's not unusual for economies and legal systems to develop hand-in-hand. For economies to grow, he said they need investment, but before anyone will invest, they want to make sure their money is protected by a stable legal system that respects the rule of law.

Those are what the country lacked in the 1990s, Domrin said, as Russia shifted from the authoritarian communist days of the Soviet Union into a more democratic country with a market-based economy.

The transition did not go well. Then-president Boris Yeltsin's Western-backed policy of "shock therapy" to quickly change to a capitalist economy succeeded only in plunging the country into economic chaos and poverty.

"It was bandit capitalism, similar to what the United States had in the Wild West," said Domrin. "A small number of people got hold of most of the country's wealth and everybody else suffered."

Among those that suffered was the Russian federal government, which became weak and riven with cronyism and corruption. The legal system followed suit, becoming so ineffective that courts didn't have enough money to mail subpoenas or even to buy coal to heat courthouses. Bribery was endemic as court officials looked elsewhere for resources they weren't getting from the government.

He said that started to change when Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, strengthening the Russian government, and by extension, the legal system. Today, Russian courts have power to back up their authority most of the time, and people know that a judge's order will usually be enforced.

Seeing the legal system stabilize, Domrin said investment both foreign and Russian has poured into the economy and created a boom. He points out that today, Moscow is one of the world's most expensive cities to live in.

Still, Domrin said the Russian legal system is not ideal, and "I don't want to give a too-rosy picture." The Russian constitution, for instance, has serious flaws, largely because the process of its creation came under less than democratic circumstances. Yeltsin rammed it into place literally at gunpoint in 1993, when he sent the army to attack the country's parliament after members defied his demand to approve a document that gave him sweeping powers.

Still in shock from the attack, Russian voters approved his constitution two months later. It hasn't been amended since, despite the fact that Domrin said it desperately needs it.

"It gives the president too much power, and I hope in the future it's amended, for example, to make parliament stronger," said Domrin. "But because it gives the president so much power, no president is anxious to change it."

He said corruption and bribery are still too common, especially in the legal system's more remote outposts. But new laws and stricter enforcement are working to reduce its impact.

"Now, the one who gives a bribe gets in trouble, too, not just the one who takes the bribe," he said. He points out that his own firm has grown to become the largest in Russia while doing its business honestly and above board.

Because of Russia's renewed vigor and growing place in the global economy, Domrin said, it's important for Iowa law students to understand how the country's law and legal system works. His class, "Russian Law in Historical Context," provides an introduction to a legal system that they may work with during their careers, especially if they're planning to pursue careers in international law or work with multinational businesses.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010 (office), 319-541-8434 (cell),