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Soviet Justice in the Age of Perestroika

ONE of the pillars of Soviet rule, the loyalty and quiescence of the bureaucrats, shows distinct signs of fracture. Most remarkable has been the expression of discontent by the police and the judiciary. The murder of a fellow officer this spring emboldened several hundred Leningrad police to gather in Palace Square, the site of the Bolshevik uprising against the old regime in 1917, to protest low pay, poor housing, and inadequate equipment. The police met in violation of the very law on demonstrations that they are charged to enforce. At the end of a turbulent, open-air demonstration, 96 policemen signed a petition demanding broad-based reform, including the creation of an independent trade union for police.

Although Soviet judges have not yet taken to the streets, they have threatened mass resignation from the bench if significant improvements in their living and working conditions are not forthcoming. Absent reform, a fifth of local judges in the Ukraine, Belorussia, Kirgizia, Latvia, and Estonia, and the entire local judiciary in Lithuania and Moldavia will reportedly stand down at the judicial elections scheduled for later this year. At issue for the judges is their meager pay, now below the level of the average Soviet worker, their heavy case load, and their humiliating dependence on local politicians for the provision of such basic benefits as apartments and vacation accommodations.

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For some segments of the bench, the dissatisfaction also extends to the Communist Party's interference in judicial decisionmaking. Although officially condemned, politicians' oral instructions to judges, known as telephone justice, remain a part of Soviet legality.

In Sverdlovsk last fall, several judges began their own form of protest against what one of them called the illusion of judicial independence. In the face of official pressure for a conviction, People's Judge Leonid Kudrin dismissed the charges of illegal assembly against members of a local ``informal'' association, the unsanctioned but grudgingly tolerated groups that now dot the Soviet political landscape. In subsequent cases of illegal assembly involving ``informals'' in Sverdlovsk, two other judges followed Judge Kudrin's lead. This judicial strike then spread into the local Procuracy, where a state prosecutor refused to appeal the politically-errant court decisions.

The state has contained these protests in familiar ways. In Leningrad, police demonstrators were made to recant and withdraw their demands. Six policemen who stood their ground were fired. In Sverdlovsk, Kudrin resigned from the bench and party before he could be expelled. He found work as a laborer in a vegetable warehouse. The uncooperative state prosecutor refused to resign quietly and became the subject of an investigation into his ``moral character.''

Such actions have not cowed Soviet justice workers, whose discontent appears to mount with the crime rate. With serious crime up 32 percent from last year, and with bolder and more frequent attacks on the lives of police (in the last two years, 64 policemen and women have died, and 400 have been wounded in the line of duty), justice workers are angry about the growing gap between the demands of their jobs and the pay and equipment accorded them. They are also confused by the shifting, and often contradictory, signals on law enforcement issued by central and local authorities. In what would have seemed a cruel parody before Mikhail Gorbachev, police and judges now view themselves as victims.

The rallying cry of reform in the justice system has become ``protection.'' Protection of the public and the police from criminals. Protection of judges from meddling politicians. And protection of poorly-paid justice workers from the insecurities of Soviet life.

In the waning hours of the Supreme Soviet's summer session, the political leadership responded to these calls. After huddling with other Politburo members, Mr. Gorbachev departed from the agenda to introduce a resolution on crime. The urgency of this matter, he said, is dictated by life itself.

Hard on the heels of this resolution, the Supreme Soviet adopted a long-awaited law on the status of judges, designed to enhance the authority and prestige of the judiciary.

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In themselves, these laws are only rhetorical commitments. A tough political fight lies ahead to reallocate money and power to, and within, the justice system. It is a fight Gorbachev cannot afford to lose. Revolution, not reform, would triumph if those enforcing the laws lost the will to rule.

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