The Soviet Union and the Rule of Law

Courtesy Reuters

Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet leadership have recognized the need for fundamental legal reform in the U.S.S.R., and their emphasis is well placed. Law is the lifeblood of any democratically organized polity. It shapes social and economic structures and relationships, and provides normative rules for private and public conduct. Moreover, given the tradition of Russian absolutism and some seventy years of Soviet totalitarianism, a requisite component of democratization in the U.S.S.R. must be the development of some form of limitation on government power. This suggests, among other things, a legal system independent of government control.

Last fall I participated in a historic meeting between representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice and Soviet government, party and law enforcement officials.1 The unprecedented candor with which Soviet officials were willing to discuss the ills plaguing their society was certainly refreshing. It reflected the leadership's apparent readiness to put aside ideological clichés and rigid, doctrinaire solutions. I was also impressed by the obvious excitement about change displayed by these officials. My Soviet interlocutors seemed genuinely interested in the American legal and democratic experience, and our discussions, while reflective, were by no means abstract. Clearly the Soviets were searching for ideas that might take root in their own country.

In my view the Soviet leadership should reestablish the legitimacy of the state by basing it upon genuine popular sovereignty-the only acceptable basis of any government in the final decade of this twentieth century. For that, however, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) must relinquish its monopoly on power, in fact as well as theory, and compete alongside other political organizations in the electoral arena.

Furthermore the Soviet Union must create a constitutional structure that includes a legal system that is not subordinate to the state but rather offers equal justice under law to everyone, thus fulfilling the law's traditional role as a mediator among conflicting societal interests. As a predicate to accomplishing these objectives, a "

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