MOSCOW // Challenging the interests of the powerful can be a lonely, futile and sometimes deadly exercise in Russia, where dozens of journalists and activists investigating corruption have suffered violence in recent years and where contract murders remain a common feature of business disputes. Victories for the little guy are rare, a rule to which crusading lawyer Inna Yermoshkina is a relentless exception.
For the past five years, Ms Yermoshkina, 42, has been leading a successful drive against what she calls corruption and discrimination involving an important and lucrative link in Russia's massive bureaucracy: the public notary. In the land of red tape, the man with a public notary stamp is royalty. Authorisation from notaries public in Russia are required for everything from real estate purchases to obtaining a foreign passport, giving notaries a stranglehold over the country's prolific paperwork.
And while notaries in Russia are run as private businesses, the government maintains a quota on the number of notaries allowed to operate, awarding permits in tenders that Ms Yermoshkina claims are rigged in favour of relatives of powerful officials. The artificial lack of supply, and immense demand, for their services make notary offices extremely lucrative businesses, with an average of more than $1 million (Dh3.6m) a year in profits, according to Ms Yermoshkina, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the Russian notarial system.
"They keep the number of notaries down to ensure that the salaries remain high," Ms Yermoshkina said. "They're thinking first of all about incomes rather than helping citizens." With a population of 140 million, Russia has 15,000-20,000 notaries currently operating nationwide, said Alexander Vladimirov, a spokesman for the Russian Federal Notary Chamber. "The official position of the chamber is that this is an adequate number," Mr Vladimirov said.
The United States, by comparison, with a population of 300 million, is home to 4.5 million notaries, according to the US National Notary Association. Moscow, which has an official population of 10.5 million, has around 700 notaries. Furthermore, Ms Yermoshkina says, the sheer workload is overwhelming due to the quotas, meaning customers are often being served by secretaries rather than professional lawyers. According to her research, Moscow notaries perform 160,000 notarial operations annually, compared to the 350 operations performed by Berlin notaries.
It was after being turned down in 2005 for a permit to run a notary office that Ms Yermoshkina began her legal offensive, claiming the commission responsible for awarding the permits was biased in favour of candidates with powerful relatives. In late June, the Moscow City Court upheld a lower court's ruling revoking permits for 32 Moscow notaries, bringing the total number of cancelled notary permits to 79, thanks to Ms Yermoshkina's lawsuits.
Among the notaries whose permits were pulled in the lawsuits was a relative of the Russian emergency situations minister Sergei Shoigu, the wife of the First Deputy Prosecutor General Alexander Buksman, and the son of the former Moscow police chief Vladimir Pronin. Ms Yermoshkina said she was at a loss to explain how she had managed to prevail over the interests of such powerful names. "Maybe they have indeed decided to restore order in the notary sector," she said.
Ms Yermoshkina, however, has been targeted herself by authorities and is currently on trial in a Moscow court on fraud charges she claims are direct retribution for her crusade. She and her ex-husband could face prison if convicted in the case, in which they are accused of defrauding a woman out of an apartment 10 years ago. Ms Yermoshkina has accused Mr Pronin, who was fired earlier this year after a Moscow police officer killed three civilians in a supermarket shooting rampage, of orchestrating the case against her because of his son's involvement in her lawsuit.
Mr Pronin could not be reached for comment for this report, though Moscow police have denied any ulterior motives and have suggested Ms Yermoshkina is psychologically unstable. Ms Yermoshkina says she has faced numerous death threats and compares the criminal case against her to a show trial during the Great Terror in the 1930s under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The judge in the case has closed the trial to the public over a witness's purported concerns for his safety, she said.
Critics of the Kremlin have accused authorities of selective prosecution of enemies, and even Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, has railed against corruption and what he calls the rampant "legal nihilism" in the country's justice system. With her trial ongoing, it remains unclear what will become of the notaries who lost their right to practice in Ms Yermoshkina's lawsuits. Moscow notary chamber head Vasily Ralko released a video statement on his website earlier this month saying that the court rulings voiding the results of the tenders would be "extremely difficult to carry out" due to a "legal collision".
"For that reason, at the current time no one can say how, when and whether this ruling will be implemented at all," Mr Ralko said. Mr Ralko could not be reached for comment. A source close to the Moscow chamber said few of the notaries are happy about Ms Yermoshkina "stirring things up". Ms Yermoshkina, meanwhile, says she has lost any desire she ever had to become a notary public and is satisfied working as a notary's assistant.
"I did my civic duty. I uncovered the failings of the system, took it to court and proved I was right," Ms Yermoshkina said of her lawsuits. "I don't plan to take part in any more tenders. I already proved to the government that the current law doesn't work. Whatever they do now is up to them." Her small victories against ruling elites may prove to be hollow should she be convicted in her current fraud trial, she said.
"I have tried to bring the situation to the attention of top officials, and I think I've managed to do that," Ms Yermoshkina said. "Not that it has improved my lot any." email@example.com