The Political-Criminal Nexus in Russia

When the political establishment collaborates with the criminal underworld, they form a political-criminal nexus (PCN). PCNs undermine state-building, rule of law, and the trust between the state and its citizens that is required for good governance.[1] While the Vory were willing to work with corrupt officials, they maintained a clear separation from the state. However, the new class of post-Soviet criminals, who the Russians called bandits, did not have the same prohibitions against becoming directly involved. Some of the bandits even became politicians, for example, in 1995, eighty-five people with criminal records ran for parliament.[2] Many officials were also involved in criminal activities beyond normal corruption, and carried out many of the same activities as the bandits. This increased inter-mixing between the criminal and the official, and the mutual enrichment, enabled a subversion of the Russian state on a grand scale.

Many of the officials who were involved in organized crime or corruption came from the nomenklatura class. The nomenklatura were the top Soviet officials, and numbered more than one million people. These officials were members of the Communist Party who the Party put on special lists of candidates for top positions. During Soviet times, the nomenklatura developed an internal system of loyalties, hierarchies, hostility to outsiders, and propensity for criminality that rivaled the Vorovskoi Mir.[3] The nomenklatura owed their loyalty to the party and each other, not to the state, so they used Soviet laws and the justice system to advance their interests rather than state interests. Importantly, these officials were only accountable to each other, meaning that they had immunity from prosecution unless the Party authorized legal action to go forward. If a corrupt official had managed to have the right connections and loyalties, they could get away with serious crimes without worries of being prosecuted.[4] When the transition to capitalism and democracy became inevitable, the nomeklatura made sure that they gained control of the privatization process, and using this control managed to trade their previous control for economic wealth that bought political power.[5]

The most flagrant example of theft committed by this PCN happened during the privatization process itself, where bureaucrats and criminals were able to take control of former Soviet assets at vastly discounted prices. During the transition, President Yeltsin’s administration liberalized prices on many everyday goods, but natural resources like oil, metals and diamonds remained subsidized at prices discounted as much as forty times world market prices. The sale of these natural resources used to benefit the state, but during the reform period, the export of these resources became privatized. This absurd situation allowed those with start-up money and political connections to become fantastically wealthy merely by buying subsidized natural resources and exporting them at market rates.[6] The process of privatization increased the bonds between the criminals and the former nomenklatura.  The officials needed the funds from the criminals to purchase the natural resources, and the criminals needed the political access that the bureaucrats had. Also, as the bureaucrats bought the natural resources, they need the criminals to protect their shipments, and to ensured that all the contracts related to their shipment and sale were enforced.[7]

The former nomeklatura used their connections and new wealth to form a new kind of criminal, which journalist Stephen Handelman called “the comrade criminal.”[8] In post-transition Russia, there were many of these comrade criminals. In 1993, more than forty-six thousand Russian officials were charged with crimes of corruption and abuse of office, and in 1998, Anatoly Kulikov, the Russian Minister of Interior, reported that state officials were responsible for a large part of the 30,000 crimes recorded that were associated with privatization.[9][10] The comrade criminal is especially capable because they had access to the coercive power of organized criminal groups as well as the power of the bureaucrats stamp to approve deals and convert illegally gotten goods into legal ones. By 1997, according to estimates by Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, about 2/3 of Russia’s economy was under some kind of control by organized criminal groups, including the majority of the banks.[11] During the transition, the goal was privatization and democratization as quickly as possible. Because the priority was changing the system, rather than clearing out the corrupt nomeklatura, the same people responsible for the failures of the Soviet Union were able to maintain their power while becoming even wealthier than before. These corrupt officials would not have been as successful without the threat of criminal violence, or protection. The connections between corrupt officials, organized crime, and business grew so tight during the transition period that it was difficult to tell the two groups apart.[12]

The corruption was public knowledge throughout Russia, and it resulted in businessmen not registering their companies with the state out of fear that bureaucrats would sell their financial information to gangs who would then extort them.[13] This resulted in tax money that should have been going to the state to pay off debts, and provide desperately needed social services, instead going to criminals for protection. These same criminals then bribed the bureaucrats for state protection as well as for cooperation in their criminal enterprises. Making the situation worse, these swindlers did not keep their money in Russia; from 1991 to 1997 capital flight from Russia is estimated at $300 billion.[14] The PCN’s blatant greed and corruption, and the chaos on the streets, influenced how the Russian people thought of democracy and capitalism, and for some Russians, prompted a desire for a return to strongman rule, stunting the chances of the Russian Federation developing into a truly free society.[15]

[1] Roy Godson, “The Political-Criminal Nexus and Global Security,” in Roy Godson, ed., Menace to Society: Political-Criminal Collaboration around the World (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2003), 1.

[2] Konstantin Kanterev, “Presidential Representative Says Criminals Competing for Seats in Novosibirsk

Legislature,” article from Novaia Sibirre printed in Institute for EastWest Studies (IEWS) Russian Regional

Report 2, no. 40, November 20, 1997.

[3] Stephen Handelman, Comrade Criminal: Russia’s New Mafiya (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 96-98.

[4] Louise I. Shelley, “Russia and Ukraine: Transition or Tragedy?,” Trends in Organized Crime 4, no. 3 (Spring 1999): 83-84.

[5] Matt Bivens and Jonas Bernstein, “The Russia You Never Met,” Demokratizatsiy: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democracy 6, no. 4 (Fall 1998):  639.

[6] Glenny, Misha, “McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld,” (New York: Random House, 2009), 56-58.

[7] Louise I. Shelley, “Russia and Ukraine: Transition or Tragedy?,” Trends in Organized Crime 4, no. 3 (Spring 1999): 90-91.

[8] Stephen Handelman, Comrade Criminal: Russia’s New Mafiya (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 70.

[9] Stephen Handelman, Comrade Criminal: Russia’s New Mafiya (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 285.

[10] Louise I. Shelley, “Russia and Ukraine: Transition or Tragedy?,” Trends in Organized Crime 4, no. 3 (Spring 1999): 95.

[11] William H. Webster, Arnaud de Borchgrave, and et. al, Russian Organized Crime: Global Organized Crime Project (Washington D.C.; CSIS, 1997), 2.

[12] Glenny, Misha, “McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld,” (New York: Random House, 2009), 69.

[13] Stephen Handelman, Comrade Criminal: Russia’s New Mafiya (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 88.

[14] William H. Webster, Arnaud de Borchgrave, and et. al, Russian Organized Crime: Global Organized Crime Project (Washington D.C.; CSIS, 1997): 38.

[15] Stephen Handelman, Comrade Criminal: Russia’s New Mafiya (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 277.

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About Leon Whyte

I'm a recent graduate of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy. My interests include Pacific Asia and Security. I am looking for related opportunities.
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