Vienna, April 29 – American judges, unlike many U.S. specialists on Russia, according to a leading legal affairs journalist in Moscow, instantly understand the meaning if not the origins or precise definition of the widely used Russian slang term “ment” as well as its implications for the possibility of the creation of a state based on law.
But unless the American specialists integrate this concept into their analyses and unless the Russians are able to overcome its consequences, Leonid Nikitinsky argues in a two-part article in “Novaya gazeta,” both will fail to recognize the importance of an independent judicial system for Russia’s and the absurdity of Vladimir Putin’s call for “a dictatorship of law.”
Nikitinsky, the secretary of the Union of Journalists and a commentator on legal affairs, provides not only an explanation of what he says is a term that is almost impossible to translate but also a discussion of why this uniquely Russian phenomenon behind it is so dangerous (www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2009/044/15.html, www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2009/045/05.html)
As Nikitinsky explains, “the word ‘ment’ comes from the lexicon of thieves” and other criminals. In prisons and camps, the word meant “in the broadest sense” any “enemy” of the prisoners who worked and did not violate the rules of his fellows. But in life outside these institutions, it has acquired a broader meaning.
There, the legal affairs journalist continues, it refers to those who exploit their position for financial gain out of entirely selfish motivations and regardless of the rules and includes among others traffic police, the militia, tax officials, and indeed anyone who is in a position to throw his weight around and force those around him to pay up.
Although it is usually discussed in terms of corruption or human rights, in fact, the problem of the “ments” in Russian society is not the one – often what the “ments” are doing is at least nominally legal – or the other – those the “ments” exploit are not having their human rights violated at least in the usual sense.
Nor is the “ment” problem about cruelty and violence, although those are often present or at least implied, Nikitinsky continues. The goal of “ments” “is not cruelty as such but only the use of fear in order to boost the effectiveness of their business.” Indeed, the criminal phrase, “it’s not personal, it’s just business,” perfectly applies.
But at the same time, he continues, “the extreme level of cruelty and force in the system has led to one in which the majority of real [law enforcement] professions who are able to conduct operational work and investigate criminal affairs have left,” opening the way to even crime and even more “ment” abuses.
(Many thought that shifting responsibility for many legal questions from the prosecutors to the courts, something the “ments” actively opposed, would have ended this situation. But in reality, Nikitinsky says, the courts have behaved in such a way that the power of the “ments” has been in no way affected.)
The current “ment” system, which has many analogues in Russian history, took off after Vladimir Putin declared his support for the restoration of “a dictatorship of laws,” an “absurdity” that was popular because it seemed to provide an escape from the wildness of the 1990s and the destruction of “the veneer of civilization” at that time.
By this declaration, Putin “let the genie out of the bottle,” because “each “ment” at his own level” could then “realize” his goals in the marketplace where he could extract the most money from others. In short, Putin established “the dictatorship of the “ment” with its absolute monopoly on profit and its pretensions to a monopoly on ideas as well.”
Such a system could only function at a time of “super profits” from the sale of oil and gas, and its relative stability during that period, now ending, led some people to confuse what Putin had established with “a police state in the usual meaning of that word.” But in fact, what Putin created, was the antithesis of a police state.
“In a police state,” Nikitinsky notes, “the cop on the beat will follow the law whether it is good or bad, but for our “ment”, the law is an optional means of resolving his problems and only that.” As a result, the notion that there is “strict discipline” in the power vertical is a complete “fiction.”
Instead, he continues, “the “ment” state is closer to the formula of feudalism, according to which ‘the vassal of my vassal is not my vassal,’” an arrangement that makes the system far more fragile than it may appear and gives those near the top far less effective power all the way down.
That has many implications, Nikitinsky says. Among the most obvious is that “the level of degeneration (but not corruption!) in the force structures is apparently so great that the traditional measures of ‘struggle with corruption’ are introducing into the administration still greater chaos by intensifying the struggle of “ment” clans among themselves.”
To escape this, the legal affairs analyst argues, will be possible only if Russia pays more attention to the importance of law, independent courts, and the use of juries, something Putin appears to understand, the many judges want out of a desire for self-respect, and that Dmitry Medvedev probably wants but may not be strong enough to insist upon.
If Russia does not move in that direction and soon, Nikitinsky warns, then there is the danger of the rise of precisely the kind of revolutionary situation Vladimir Lenin talked about, one in which “those on top are no longer able to rule, while those at the bottom are no longer willing to continue to live in the way that they have.”