Staunton, August 26 – Vladimir Putin often speaks of his regime as being “a dictatorship of law,” something some in Russia and the West welcome as being a step away from the arbitrariness of Soviet rule. But in fact, it is just as arbitrary as the Soviet system was and so the term should be replaced with another, “a legal dictatorship,” Irina Pavlova says.
A commitment to the rule of law is an “inalienable” feature of Western civilization, the US-based Russian historian says; but “dictatorship of law” is something else, given that Putin like most Russians still understands dictatorship as meaning the rule of an elite without regard to any legal principles (ivpavlova.blogspot.com/2021/08/blog-post_26.html#more).
Thus, for Russians if, unfortunately, not always for Westerners examining Russia, the dictatorship of law Putin likes to talk about is an oxymoron. If there is a dictatorship, there is no rule of law; and if there is the rule of law, there is no dictatorship. But in fact the situation is somewhat more complicated, Pavlova suggests.
Dictatorships like Putin’s often use law to enforce their will, using the positive connotation of law to get people to do what they want them to do. But these dictatorships do not show any respect for law but instead view it purely instrumentally, something they can change at will by how they apply it.
Consequently, the Russian historian argues, what is needed is an additional term, “legal dictatorship,” to designate regimes like Putin’s which use laws in this way to cement their power. In one sense, their reliance on laws represents progress from complete arbitrariness; but in another, their approach has the effect of gutting the meaning of law itself.
Thus, instead of using Putin’s duplicitous term “dictatorship of law,” Russians and those examining Russia should speak of a legal dictatorship in order to make clear that the dictatorship is primary and law is a means to its ends.