"Legal nihilism" is a term that describes widespread disrespect for the law at all levels of Russian society. The term has been coined by the country's just-elected President Dmitry Medvedev. A former law professor, President Medvedev has also promised to make law and order a top priority.

For example, he has called for legislation to rein in "reiderstvo" (the lucrative business of paying a publicly known scale of "fees" in order to bankrupt or take over a company - that scale is apparently $20,000 to $50,000 to the police to open a criminal investigation against a company , around $30,000 to the police/ paramilitary/ detectives for a raid on a company's headquarters in order to seize records and paralyse functioning, and only $10,000 to $200,000 for a favorable court ruling).

On that basis, it costs somewhere around $300,000 dollars for the "administrative" work involved in bankrupting or taking over a company. What is not known is how much has to be paid to politicians and others. And if it is the politicians themselves doing the takeover, presumably they have to share at least some crumbs with others in the system. Presumably, the crumbs have to be relatively large if the company is the size of Yukos or TNK-BP or Hermitage Capital Management.

But even relatively small companies, on Russia's scale, must be tempting - according to the Russian Chamber of Commerce & Industry, some 8,000 companies a year are targets of such lawsuits or investigations intended to bankrupt them or take them over.

What is President Medvedev's solution to such rampant mainpulation of the law by political, criminal and business groups? Well, among other things, the Russian Parliament is now debating a 20-year jail sentence for raiders who acquire companies illegally. It is not clear that any legislative measure is going to address and ameliorate a disease that is deeper than mere legislation - a disease that is, in fact, cultural.

In other words, the question that President Medvedev does not ask is: what are the cultural roots of Russia's lawlessness?

As long as he does not ask that question, as long as he does not find sufficiently insightful answers and as long as he does not put in place a thereby effective programme to combat those roots, he has no hope of actually doing anything about cultural lawlessness, however noble his intentions (the way to hell is paved with good intentions, someone once said).

So what are the roots of a whole culture that is lawless? Clearly, in Russia's case, the other-worldly tradition of the Orthodox Church has something to do with it, because it failed to instill a culture of respect for the law. That is to put it generously. Critics might say that the Church actively colluded (and continues to collude) in creating that culture of lawlessness.

A second contributor to Russia's cultural lawlessness is its Communist heritage. The "law" was whatever the current clique in power SAID was the law. And this continues to be the situation.

A third contributor to cultural lawlessness is the sort of capitalism Russia has sought to put in place: a Darwinist or jungle capitalism arising primarily from the ideology of theorists such as Milton Friedman, and not from any overwhelming sense of morality, justice or what is humane.

No doubt there may be other significant contributors to "legal nihilism" in Russia and other such countries.

In countries outside that ambit, there are equally doubtlessly highly different reasons that are either responsible or contributory. For example, in India, it is the "Hinduism" typified by the VHP; in countries such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar/ Burma, Thailand and Cambodia, it is the quiescent and other-worldly Buddhism of the majority population; in the Philippines, it is the Romanism of ITS majority, and so on. In Africa, it is primarily tribalism and the other-worldliness of the local religions.

You will perhaps have noticed my repeated attack on "other-worldly religions". The reasons for my attack are documented (probably insufficiently!) elsewhere.

However, you may wonder about the role of a "this worldly religion" (Islam) and why THAT does not seem to end up delivering the rule of law in any sense that results in human flourishing.

Exloring this matter requires a rather full discussion. For the moment, let me just say that, as Islam cavils at the essential point of whether morality is absolute or relative in relation to the spread of Islam, muslims have made various compromises in terms of law, ethics and morality in order to spread Islam (just as the Roman and Orthodox and Anglican churches have, and have Hindu, Jain and Buddhist traditions). Once Islam is established in any society, it has so far shown a tendency towards stasis (just as have the other traditions that I named in the last sentence). It is only in the last few decades that there has been any widespread attempt at self-criticism and reform (not always in a desirable direction, principally because such self-criticism and reform have been in response to what Muslims have perceived as the "threat" of modernity - or, in our terms, Protestantisation). That seems to me the principal reason why the actual results of contemporary Muslim reform movements have been either a mixed blessing or overall negative so far, though they could have ended up being positive.

Examples of non-Protestant traditions (though all influenced by the Bible in various ways) that provided some minimal respect for law at least for a time, have been:
- Maoism in China,
- the "catching up" movement, starting under the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Meiji oligarchy in the eighteenth century but more fully under direct American tutelage after World War II, and
- simple nationalism (such as in India under the influence of Mahatma Phule, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Ambedkar).

However, a glance at the 2006 "Rule of Law Index", which measures the extent to which agents have confidence in and abide by the rules of society shows that, even in our own day, North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand are the only areas that are most substantially under the rule of law.

Prabhu Guptara