International Development Law Organization

Justice in Central Asia: from Rags to the Rule of Law

20 Mar 2013

Recruiting for: court judges. 

Remuneration: $300 to $600/month. 

Duties: 

    • dispensing justice; 
    • helping foster a culture of law; 
    • fixing the lights.

No job advert looks like this – but in parts of the former Soviet bloc, they should. In much of Central Asia in particular, underfunding of the judiciary is chronic. Across a belt of states hugging the southern rim of Russia, less than half a percent of national budgets is devoted to the sector. 

In Kyrgyzstan, which has just hosted an IDLO-sponsored, Dutch-financed regional forum on the issue, the judiciary’s allocation has shrunk again this year – even as the government vowed to increase it fivefold. Add poor administrative capacity to the picture, and even this paltry amount is unlikely to be spent in full. 

“There’s a double whammy going on,” says IDLO Kyrgyzstan Country Director Fred Huston, on the line from Bishkek. “Not only are the budgets laughable: actual expenditure is substantially less than what is says on paper.” 

That this semi-starvation regime undermines both the self-confidence of judges, and society’s confidence in them, was a widely shared view at the event. Members of the Supreme Courts of Russia and seven other nations, from Moldova in the West to Mongolia in the East, gathered to compare notes and thrash out solutions. With the exceptions of oil-rich Russia and of Georgia, where deep reforms have secured more adequate financing mechanisms and pay levels, the experiences were similar in all participating countries. This is hardly surprising: almost all judicial systems in the region are the same age – a troubled, gauche, unloved nineteen.

With reported workloads of up to two-hundred cases a month per judge in Ukraine, for example, staffing levels are woefully low. The quality of the act of justice suffers accordingly. In Kyrgyzstan, the money is too tight to order judicial robes. 

“There was clear agreement,” Mr. Huston says, speaking from the forum, “that the executive and legislative branches don’t look upon the judiciary as an equal, third branch of power. Ukraine in particular was very direct, very detailed about the level of disrespect for the judiciary by the executive and legislative branches – about the status of the judiciary as the system’s Cinderella.” Regional tradition, still only partly shed, sees the judicial ‘organs’ as mere policy-implementing arms of the state. There is still little sense of the judiciary as an independent body, and of this independence as the bedrock of successful nationhood. This perceived lack of independence, in turn, lowers expectations and corrodes the very concept of justice. Among both government and citizens, the idea and practice of impartiality have yet to coagulate into a normative consensus. “We’re like tabaka chickens,” a Tajik Supreme Court judge joked: he was referencing a pan-regional dish, where the bird is flattened out and roasted from both sides. 

The need seems acute for an overall mentality shift. Adequate funding, IDLO believes, holds the key to a wholesale repositioning of Central Asia’s judicial systems. One area where custom lingers nefariously is the budgetary habit of ‘protected categories’. Plainly, in the case of the judiciary, this means that only salaries and social contributions are guaranteed funding. Everything else that is vital to the issuance and enforcement of judgments – heating, electricity, rents, transportation – is not ‘protected.’ By way of consequence, it often goes unpaid. 

Abolishing protected-category budgeting – an instrument structurally bound to trigger underfunding – is one of the main Bishkek Recommendations to emerge from the forum. “All lines of the judicial system,” the document says, “should be ‘protected’.” 

The document also recommends that judicial bodies be given a say in the formation of the budget; and, crucially, that (increased) funding be fixed at the beginning of the year. The aim is to eliminate another endemic practice: ad-hoc allocations from one month to the next. As well as crippling the system, these tend to cement its unhealthy reliance on executive fiat.

That judicial reform is high on the agenda was visible in the extensive coverage the forum received in Kyrgyzstan – including a one-hour broadcast on national television. IDLO is already well-established in the country, where it has been helping train judges and developing e-courts as part of projects supported by the United States and the EBRD. If transformative policies take hold here, cultural and historical affinities mean good practices may well spread around the region. As recent events have shown, momentous revolutions often start in small places.