The end of 2013 witnessed a flurry of legal activity in the Russian Federation, including a major amnesty and the unexpected pardon of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Other steps, however, have raised concerns about Russia’s commitment to rule of law principles and whether the country remains on a path to creating a modern legal infrastructure. The consequences for failing to do so remain high, both for Russia’s ability to attract foreign investment and for its overall standing in world affairs.

Putin's Judicial Vertical: Russian Rule of Law Takes a Step Backward

The end of 2013 witnessed a flurry of legal activity in the Russian Federation. A number of prominent political defendants—including the members of Pussy Riot; some, but not all, of the Bolotnaya Square demonstrators arrested in May 2012; and the Greenpeace activists arrested offshore three months ago—were released as part of a major amnesty passed by the Russian Duma. President Vladimir Putin’s unexpected pardon of Mikhail Khodorkovsky fueled additional speculation as to the future direction of Russian legal reform. Some observers cited Putin’s own initiative in freeing Khodorkovsky as an encouraging sign, while other commentators insisted that far from having taken a positive step, Putin had been forced to respond to persistent human rights pressures, especially in anticipation of the Sochi Olympics.

Both the amnesty and the pardon overshadowed what was a major milestone in Russian legal history: On Dec. 12, 2013, Russia marked the 20th anniversary of the Russian Constitution. The amnesty itself was initiated as a traditional means of honoring such an important occasion. ...

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