Soviets Shift Toward Rule of Law


IT'S now official. American policy toward the Soviet Union, as articulated by President Bush in his May 24 Coast Guard Academy speech, has shifted. Where once the goal was ``containment'' of Soviet expansionism, the aim now is ``integrating the Soviet Union into the community of nations.'' Can such integration work? That depends on whether the legal structures of the Soviet Union and the free world can be harmonized. A ``community,'' after all, is defined in large part by a commonality of laws. Central question: Is Soviet legal practice compatible with that of the Western nations?

Increasingly so, says Gvido Zemribo, chairman (chief justice) of the Supreme Court of Latvia and a member of the Supreme Court of the USSR.

A judge since 1962, the courteous and good-humored Mr. Zemribo has seen plenty of change since 1985, when, in unrelated events, he became chief justice and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. In an interview during his visit to the United States to address the graduating class of the University of Maine Law School, Zemribo charted some of the more encouraging developments:

A shift in attitude toward the so-called ``preliminary investigation.'' Ten or 20 years ago, he says, the courts essentially rubber-stamped the findings of the police and passed sentence. ``Now we have announced that the main investigation - the one in which the facts must be proved - is the court investigation,'' he says. The result has been a significant increase in the number of acquittals.

A change in sentencing policy. In the past, the view of punishment was uncomplicated: the harsher, the better. Now, he says, judges are interested in ``the possibility [that a person can] change his manners and his life'' under an appropriate sentence. In 1984, he says, about 55 percent of those found guilty were sentenced to prison. Today's figure: about 33 percent.

Stronger guarantees of the independence of judges. Elected by the Soviets of People's Deputies (representing either republics or regions), judges used to serve terms of five years. Now, under a law passed last December, they will serve 10. He already sees evidence that so-called ``telephone justice' - with judges getting calls from party officials requesting particular verdicts - is declining.

He cites as particularly significant the events of the 19th Party Conference held last summer, which concluded that ``just as all citizens have obligations to our state ... the state has obligations to its citizens.'' Among those obligations: the elimination of what he calls the ``extrajudicial repressions'' characteristic of Stalin's rule, and the establishment of procedures for ``appealing to the court against unlawful official actions.''

Zemribo also points to a draft law calling for more rigorous requirements for prospective judges, including a special examination. He repeats with enthusiasm a comment by one of Gorbachev's close associates, Alexander N. Yakovlev. ```For a thousand years, Russia was ruled by men,''' Zemribo quotes him as saying. ```It is time that the country must be ruled by law.'''

That doesn't mean all's well in Latvian law. On March 4, the Latvian Communist Party Central Committee significantly tightened restrictions on journalists and on informal groups opposed to government actions.

A poll in the Communist Party youth magazine, Liesma (flame), recently named Janis Dxenitis, the Latvian state prosecutor, the least liked individual in the republic. Meanwhile, the independence movement continues to boil, and issues of severe (and illegal) environmental pollution are increasingly in the public eye.

But the movement - toward a so-called ``socialist rule-of-law state'' throughout the USSR - is headed in the right direction. For a nation eager to enter the world's community of nations - and whose presence there would greatly enhance the prospects for global peace - that's worth cheering about.

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