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Analysing Corruption and Organised Crime in Russia

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Published: Wed, 28 Feb 2018

Corruption as will be examined, was nothing new in the post-Soviet economy for its perceived rise and that of organised crime had their origins in the Soviet era. In the Soviet Union private enterprise on an individual or business basis had officially not been allowed from when the New Economic Policy was abandoned in the 1920s and with the forced collectivization of agriculture during the 1930s.

Under the Stalinist State the economy was planned and commanded by the Communist Party via the Soviet Union’s state structure. In theory the Soviet State controlled every aspect of the Soviet economy. It set prices; it controlled industrial outputs, banking services and foreign exchange rates. However, in practice there was a flourishing black market in luxury goods and foreign exchange rates before the political and economic reforms started by Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s. His twin policies of Glasnost and Perestroika, political openness and economic restructuring were intended to prolong the Soviet Union. Instead the Soviet Union would collapse leaving its successor states working towards democracy and capitalism whilst facing up to the problem of increasing corruption and organised crime.

The level of corruption if not organised crime during the Soviet era might not be too easy to establish exactly. The Soviet authorities after all kept the true state of the economy hidden from the West even if its citizens experienced hardships and shortages. The leading members of the politburo had been the only ones with a realistic view of the economy. The liberalisation of the economy in all parts of the former Soviet Union since 1991 have generally led to an increase of corruption and organised crime. Clampdowns on organised crime and corruption have often been half hearted when they have been carried out both during and after the Soviet era. Explanations for this rise in corruption and organised crime will now be described and examined. Some of these causes pre-date the collapse of the Soviet Union whilst others emerged later.

Black markets existed prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union often bringing consumers goods that were unavailable in the state-run shops, goods that were sometimes exchanged instead of sold to avoid breaking the law. Hand in hand with the black markets went corruption and bribery. Black marketers frequently resorted to bribing communist party officials, the police and the KGB or they in turn extorted money off the black marketers. The KGB sometimes recruited some of the black marketers to inform on their rivals and their customers. The more the Soviet economy faltered the faster the black-market grew, providing people with goods not available in the shops. Those marketers that did not bribe officials often found their homes or businesses raided or got put in jail, those that paid up could go about their business undisturbed. The Soviet leadership started to have concerns about economic stagnation, organised crime and to a lesser extent corruption in the early 1980s but none of them seemed to understand the extent of the economic malaise. The long years of stagnation continued until despite the rapid deaths of three general secretaries of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) between 1982-1985.

Leonid Brezhnev during his time in charge had done nothing to halt economic decline and in fact worsened it by accelerating the arms race with the United States and invading Afghanistan. It has been estimated that as much as 50% of the Soviet Union’s annual budges was spent on defence or related products and projects. However, that was money that the Soviet Union no longer had to spare. His immediate successor Yuri Andropov started a campaign against bribery and corruption that petered out with his death in 1984. When Gorbachev replaced Konstantin Chernenko a year later he pledged to reform the Soviet Union. Instead his policies would promote its collapse and lead to increased corruption and organised crime in the sixteen successor states. The problem with Stalinist economic planning was that it “created and perpetuated a shortage economy motivated only by harsh orders from the centre.” It kept most of the people equally poor except for those that found ways around the system.

By the 1980s the idea of abandoning the communist command economy in favour of capitalism and liberal democracy gained ground not only in the Soviet Union but also in Central and Eastern Europe. For the reformers could look at the neo-liberal experience of the Thatcher and Reagan administrations, perhaps the devastating social and economic effects in parts of Latin America would have been more relevant. There was of course the example of the New Economic Policy that had allowed the Soviet economy to recover from the ravages of civil war, an attractive example to communists that wanted to reform the system but also for the non-communists that wished to replace it. There was one group of pro-capitalist economists that hoped to bring in a market system to Russia, they were the ‘young reformers’. Yeger Gaider whose family was amongst the elites of the Soviet nomenklatura ironically enough headed the young reformers. They were just looking for somebody to carry out their plans and not power for themselves and would eventually team up with Boris Yeltsin a highly effective (when healthy) populist politician with only a limited understanding of economics. Alongside Yeltsin, they had the dream of dismantling communism. However, the way in which communism was dismantled across the former Soviet Union would contribute greatly to the rise of organised crime alongside the already high levels of corruption.

In the first years of Gorbachev’s rule his government attempted to preserve the Soviet political system whilst reforming its economic system, little realising that these reforms would fail and thus contribute to the rise of corruption and organised crime as well as the disintegration of the Soviet Union. He wanted to make the system worktop its full capacity without moving to a capitalist economy or inducing economic suffering. The government attempted to increase productivity by reducing alcohol consumption and the sickness that was often connected to it, but he did not run an anti – corruption campaign immediately. Gorbachev would have banned vodka but feared the ban would be circumvented by organised crime gangs, plus the tax revenues that kept the Soviet government solvent. One man who had started Ananta-corruption campaign was Boris Yeltsin who was the Moscow party boss until his sudden dismissal by Gorbachev during November 1987.Gorbachev believed he had removed his greatest rival but had in fact made a very basic political blunder, as Yeltsin was no longer controllable and determined to avenge his fall from power.

By 1989 it became clear that the Soviet economic system was unsustainable or beyond reforming and Gorbachev introduced some capitalist measures. Those measures included allowing small private businesses to operate from August 1990 and a series of de-regulations and privatisations between October 1990 and July 1991. Economic reforms brought increased opportunities to organised criminals and budding capitalist entrepreneurs, a distinction in the former Soviet Union that is not always clear. The sudden creations of small businesses increased chances for investments and money laundering or even to takeover privatised companies. Decades of communist economic and political rule left a legacy that was difficult to shake off immediately in the post-Soviet era. Yeltsin and his contemporaries found it difficult to see the world from outside of a communist perspective. The communist legacy of patronage, privileges, corruption and perks would contribute to the rise of corruption and organised crime in the post-Soviet era. As the system started to collapse across the Soviet Union law and order began to decline with it thus allowing increased opportunities for organised crime and corruption as well as increased nationalist and ethnic tensions. 

The political disintegration of the Soviet Union went hand in hand with its economic disintegration and declining levels of law and order in all the successor republics. The end of the Soviet Union was hastened by the failure of the communist coup in August 1991. The Baltic States had already broke away from the Soviet Union and was already on their way to capitalist economies. Russian president Boris Yeltsin seeming to stand for the twin transition from communist state to liberal democracy and planned socialist economy to neo-liberal capitalism although this is not exactly what happened. Contrary to Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin had believed that the breakup of the Soviet Union could be a positive rather than a disastrous event although many of his Russian compatriots might not have agreed with him. For the other former republics, it was a case of independence at last. Perhaps those that took advantage of the break up through organised crime or corruption would have agreed with him. The Yeltsin government at first enthusiastically backed rapid and radical reforms, radical economics carried out by a group of advisors dubbed the ‘the young reformers’. Russia and the other former republics of the Soviet Union had very primitive banking and financial systems that presented apparently ideal opportunities for Russian and foreign investors. Those acting as go-betweens in business deals could make small fortunes by doing so. The transition to capitalism offered the prospect of making millions, it also led to the increase in organised crime and corruption as gangsters threatened investors, businesses and often fought each other. The Russian and other governments seemed incapable of monitoring, containing or preventing that rise.

The Yeltsin government was hampered in its efforts to control and administer the regions let alone fight the rise in crime because the remaining regional governors were by and large communist nomenklatura and apparatchiks and unwilling to do as Moscow commanded. These bureaucrats forged links with industrialists in their region providing basis for ongoing and future corruption. The bitter power struggles between President and Parliament during the 1992-1993 period distracted them from trying to solve the country’s problems and allowed the regions greater autonomy and the increasing number of organised crime gangs free rein across much of Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union. They also spent much time and effort trying to persuade the public the other side was more corrupt and had greater links to organised crime than they did. One deputy governor indicated the scale of corruption in the remoter parts of Siberia that to start “accompany you probably have to bribe forty bureaucrats.”

Organised crime gangs used the decline in government control to organise protection rackets to fleece investors and small businesses. There was an alarming increase in violent crimes and murders as gangs competed for control of their victims and clients or punished those that would not pay for their dubious protection. The number of killings related to gang warfare escalated dramatically. Moscow and the newly renamed St Petersburg have been the centres of most of that gang warfare. Corruption was not merely confined to the Mafia gangs it also extended to the police, the armed forces and civil servants. In Russia traffic police were involved in robbing motorists also teaming up with local gangs to force motorists to hand over their cars, or to pay them fines for non-existent offences or face their cars being confiscated. Corruption and the buying and selling of anything and everything was so widespread that young female university students would aim to become hard currency call girls or the mistresses of oligarchs or wealthy businessmen, whilst jobless youths would advertise their services for contract killings.

One ruthless organised crime gang even went as far as murdering car owners and disposing of their bodies to steal their cars. Organised crime and the number of crime gangs increased dramatically as the political elites spent more time arguing amongst each other rather than fighting crime and corruption. Nobody in the public or the media believed that Boris Yeltsin would succeed in rooting out organised crime and corruption, after all every single Soviet leader had promised to do the same since 1917. After all his only previous crack down on corruption and organised crime in Moscow had been stopped it its tracks by Gorbachev when he was sacked as the Moscow party boss. The official crime figures for 1992 give a strong indication of the deteriorating law and order situation. The number of murders had increased by 40%whilst there was an even larger increase in robbery up by 60%. The overall number of registered crimes, bearing in mind that many crimes remained unreported went up to 2.76 million. In fact, the contending elites accused each other of corruption to score points off each other whilst the public were not interested in their squabbles and the 3,000or so crime gangs carried on regardless. Of the newly private run business in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States those3,000 gangs were able to pocket perhaps as much as 40 % of the turnovers early as 1993.

Corruption was never too far from the surface in the former Soviet Union. It should have not been a surprise therefore that corruption and organised crime would rise in the post-Soviet as they already headstrong foundations and connections to outside crime gangs. During the Soviet era if an individual knew or bribed the right officials they could get the best luxury items, property deals or their children into the finest schools or universities. So, nobody could doubt that there would be greater levels of corruption when the restraints of the Soviet system were removed. In fact, corruption dated back into the Imperial Russian past, were the civil service had been unsalaried but able to accept gifts or payments in kind. The CPSU may have claimed to be responsible for the leading role in society and the economy, some of its members took a leading role in the black market or for a small bribe get people things that would not normally be available.

In Belarus the movement towards independence was given a new impetus byte desire to be rid of greedy and corrupt communist party leaders. The unravelling of the Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe gave an opportunity for the more entrepreneurial members of the withdrawing Soviet army to make their fortunes. The pickings could be rich for the Soviet army had large areas of land and housing to sell. When Gorbachev made a deal with the West German government to sell Soviet military bases in the former East Germany back to them most of the best pickings had already gone. The Soviet defence minister Dmitrii Yazov happily joined in the schemes that led to the disappearance of the Soviet army assets without a trace. Yazov may have enjoyed making money for himself but he was wholeheartedly against political and economic reform. He would be one of the main leaders of the August 1991 coup. After all, under the Soviet system the higher an individual’s position within the party, the KGB or the armed forces they could expect greater share of the perks and the spoils.

Just how much money the corrupt communist party members made may not beknown exactly, much of the evidence was destroyed just before the final failed coup of August 1991. Those party members that did not get into trouble following the coup could find themselves in a good position to make money in the brave new post -Soviet world. That was because they already knew how to operate in corrupt systems and some already had links with organised crime. For many of the small traders that operated largely illegally during the Soviet era the only real difference between the past and the post-Soviet present was whom they paid for the privilege of staying in business. Now they had to pay organised crime gangs to stay in business and to stay alive rather than bribe communist party officials or members of the KGB, or if they were unlucky they would have to pay them all. Corruption and organised crime increased in the post-Soviet era, but it had great potential during the Soviet era and the right conditions would fuel a massive expansion.

For much of the former Soviet Union these conditions were present in the early 1990s. Petty crime was rumoured to be rife amongst civil servants and state employees, for instance in 1993 the Russian Interior Ministry recorded 13,000 such crimes, that was thought to be the tip of the iceberg. It was estimated that virtually all shops paid protection and perhaps four fifths of businesses and financial institutes did the same. The organised crime gangs had a virtual free reign on their prospective victims, as the number of untainted police was inadequate even if they could find any brave or foolish enough to testify. The more successful entrepreneurs could hire bodyguards but that was not an option for the smaller traders who had to pay up or face the consequences.

In Russia neither the transition to democracy and the switch to capitalist economy has developed as the Russians and those in the rest of the world that were interested hoped or expected. These transitions unintentionally led to increased corruption and organised crime. Through a combination of the collapse of the archaic economic system, assets stripping by the Russians that brought utilities at cheap prices, government failings and last but no means least corruption. Russia was in a worse economic position than the Soviet Union had been, as were most of the former Soviet republics. Inward foreign investment during the 1990s did not make up for the vast sums that left Russia of between $100 billion and $150 billion made by the oligarchs that asset stripped Russia’s industries and infra-structure and does not include any of the profits made the organised crime gangs.

Foreign investors, the more sensible ones at least were put off the possibility of investing in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union by the high risk of their investment been ruined by having to pay bribes to officials and protection to crime gangs. It seems that the only people prospering in post-Soviet Russia are those that became nouveau riche by their investments or those that made their money less honestly through extortion or corruption. Poverty and unemployment that did not officially exist during the Soviet era increased alarmingly during the 1990s. Even if the poverty line is measured below a monthly income of less than $30 a month up to 40 million Russians appear to live in poverty. That is alarming for a country that has the largest part of the Soviet Union that had been a military superpower until1991. Economically Russia’s decline was remarkable for its severity, producing less than Belgium and barely a quarter more than Poland.

In the immediate post-Soviet period the situation was more chaotic because all the former republics were still maintaining the old Soviet currency and printing money as if it was going out of fashion, adding to the inflationary consequences of ending price controls. The chaotic situation increased the ease in which organised crime gangs could operate in the former Soviet Union. Whilst the resulting hyperinflation (added to by the removal of price controls) meant that many more ordinary people had to find alternative methods of supplementing their incomes. Russia was not the slowest country to reform its economy or political institutions Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Belarus according to European Bank of Reconstruction and Development were amongst the least reformed and most poverty struck. In contrast the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia progressed well enough to be admitted in the European Union by 2004.

The adoption of free market capitalism brought an end to queuing in empty shops and replaced it with full shops where most people could not afford to buy anything. Hence people were searching for legal or illegal means of boosting their incomes and thus more likely to become involved in corruption and bribery. Uneconomic factories were shut making millions unemployed. Under the Soviet system people had less money but there was better state provisions and prices were fixed so inflation was virtually non-existent. The Soviet system had given privileges to countless petty state workers and junior party members. They were known as apparatchiks, whilst high ranking officials and senior party members with better perks were known as nomenklatura. With the end of the Soviet system some of these apparatchiks and nomenklatura exchanged their privileges for money, those still in state employment that had remained honest now exchanged favours for bribes. Corruption increased during the post-Soviet era simply out of economic necessity right across all the former Soviet Union as ordinary citizens and government officials found that they did not enough to live on. Throughout the former Soviet Union, the pace of economic liberalisation varied.

By the middle of 1994 the Baltic States and Russia in terms of the total percentage of gross domestic product generated by the private sector of the economy were well ahead of the Asian republics, Belarus and Moldova. In Estonia and Latvia, it was 55%, in Russia and Lithuania50 % with Belarus, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan lagged far behind on only 15%. In post-Soviet Russia nomenklatura were better placed than most to survive the harsher economic climate particularly those that lived in regions such as Siberia found it harder to survive especially when state subsidies ended leaving food and fuel far more expensive than in the major cities. The collapse of communism cut off many of the remote industrial and mining areas from the central government leading to social and economic decay. Such neglect has allowed for the growth of organised crime and corruption as desperate people turn to drugs and alcohol. Drug and alcohol abuse leads to health problems or addiction. To counter some of the incursions into those remote areas by crime gangs the Putin government once more restricted travel in to those areas.

A factor that contributed to the rise of organised crime in the post-Soviet was the wide availability of weapons for organised crime gangs and individual gangsters or thugs to use. Weapons were often obtained from members of the armed forces. Military and naval personnel were increasingly eager to sell weapons to supplement their wages, assuming they had been paid on time. The Russian commanders are said to have done worse during the first Chechen war of 1994 -1996. They sold Grozny back to the rebels in August 1996 leading to the deaths of defenceless conscripts. Corruption within the Russian military seems to be endemic, which given its role in maintaining central government authority and internal security in some of the remoter regions of the Russian Federation certainly permitted and even encouraged organised crime to rise, for instance in Chechnya. During the second Chechen war that began in 1999 the local police observed the illicit trade between Russian soldiers and local black marketers.

These soldiers would exchange boxes of ammunition for locally distilled vodka or locally grown cannabis with the tacit approval of their superior officers. Indeed, officers often accompanied their men when these exchanges took place. The black marketers then sell the ammunition to the Chechen fighters. Local police could intervene and arrest everybody, but they have either been told not to or bribed motto. The army was supposed to keep all the roads into Chechnya secure to prevent the rebels escaping or gaining supplies and money. However, the reporter Anna Politkovskaya was told “one person on foot must pay100 roubles; a light vehicle costs about 500-600 roubles”. Politkovskaya did not readily accept those claims until she successfully bribed the soldiers to get past the checkpoint. The greed and corruption of the army must have been counterproductive. They sold ammunition that was used by the Chechens and they allowed access to restricted areas to anybody who could have smuggled weapons in and people out. The corruption of the Russian armed forces in the area in and around Chechnya lowered the security and containment of Chechen fighters and contributed to the apparent ease in which rebels were able to take hostages in the Moscow theatre during October 2002. More horrifically the siege of a Beslan high school in September 2004 showed that the Russian military were incompetent as well as riddled with corruption.

Gangsters did not always buy weapons; they could often steal weapons from poorly guarded or neglected military bases. Due to the Soviet Union having national service most of the organised crime gang members could already use weapons. Troops leaving the army could also consider employment as either bodyguard for the newly rich and the justifiably concerned business owners or joining the organised crime gangs themselves as thugs and assassins. Violent crime is probably not as prevalent as people in the West might believe, however crime gangs would have no qualms about settling accounts with intimidation, assault and murder. Some murders have shown that the crime gangs and contract killers are able to gain hold of sophisticated weapons such as rocket launchers to kill bodyguards as well as their bosses in St Petersburg. Gangs must be well connected as well as rich to acquire such weapons.

The dramatic rise in the murder rate witnessed not only the deaths of politicians (three members of the Duma were shot dead in cold blood) but also businessmen and journalists. Business executives and more lowly bank employees could be and were at risk of being killed due tithe rise in corruption and organised crime. Not many gang members were afraid of being caught and convicted, for they were confident that even if the police did catch them that either the police or the courts could be persuaded to let them get away with it. In the period between 1992and 1995, the number of killed bank workers ranging from clerks to senior executives was 46. The most publicized killing was that of Pivanilide who the president of Rosbiznesbank had been. Kivelidi was poisoned in August 1995 for not complying with the demands of organised criminals. There are still a high number of deaths because of fighting between rival gangs still demonstrating that there are enough guns and money up for grabs to make the high risks of being killed seem worthwhile. Over 2,000 gang members are gunned down every year in gang wars in the Moscow region alone. Until the Putin presidency the situation in St Petersburg had been worse although Putin seems to want to clean up his home city.

The difficulty and the danger of uncovering the true level of crimes being committed aided the rise in organised crime and corruption. With so many bureaucrats, police and politicians involved or thought to be involved in corruption much of the uncovering of crimes and evidence of corruption came from the press and journalists or even rarely independently minded politicians. For journalists it was dangerous to uncover and attempt to publish evidence and articles concerning organised crime gangs and the high levels of corruption. Considering the increasing control of the media by the state or by oligarchs whose own positions could be undermined by revelations of corruption or organised crime it has not always been easy for reporters to go public with evidence they have gathered. To illustrate the dangerous position journalists found themselves in, 36 were killed between January 1994and May 1995 throughout the former Soviet Union whilst doing their jobs and reporting on not only corruption and organised crime but also the conflict in Chechnya.

The uncovering of evidence of the corruption and fraud within the Soviet army during its time in East Germany and before its departure appeared to be a major scope for the Murkowski Komsomolsk and its investigative journalist Dmitrii Kholod. For Kholod it proved one-story too far as a bomb blew up him and his office during October1994. Even television reporters and journalists were not immune from danger. Following his research into the corrupt or dishonest selling of television advertising Vladimir Listed was gunned down in March 1995before he could broadcast all his findings. At other times politicians, bureaucrats and business executives would inform or leak information about their rivals real or presumed links with organised crime and corruption for their own gain rather than in the public interest or to fight corruption itself. Whilst these bouts of accusations and counter accusations occupied the politicians and press attentions they occasionally removed the expendable politicians and bureaucrats whilst leaving the level of overall corruption untouched.

As noted below the Books affair would be used to force the resignations of some of the young reformers in 1999. Accusations of corruption would also be leaked to the press after an individual had lost the approval of either President Yeltsin or President Putin. The prime example of this were the accusations levelled against Boris Berezovskyafter he fell out with Putin, or more aptly when Putin regarded him as no longer useful to the Kremlin. Berezovsky is claimed to have stolen millions from his companies and state-run companies such as Aeroflot. All these events were from the early 1990s, so the Russian government had plenty of time to prove them or clear him. Berezovsky who went to exile in London has retaliated by campaigning against the Putin government’s increasing control of power. In Russia it appears that those involved in corruption or organised crime are relatively immune from arrest if they do not upset the Kremlin, or their punishment becomes politically expedient for the government. President Putin is arguably “searching for levers that will work … to have in place a national authority that functions as normal governments do”.

Corruption was a fact of life in the Soviet era and now seems even more endemic in the post-Soviet period; ordinary Soviet citizens were cynical about the financial honesty of their political masters and the higher-ranking communist party officials, a cynicism that continues with post-Soviet politicians and officials. Evidence of corruption and bribery would often be collected by the KGB and used if the individuals concerned fall out of favour senior party members, its successor still collects such information only now some its officers are more likely to sell sensitive information to the highest bidders. President Yeltsinonly renamed the KGB the FSB instead of abolishing it. He also retained control of the KGB records and evidence of the corruption they contained Timely uncovering of bribe taking and corruption have often been used to discredit rivals and justify the dismissal of ministers and officials. Therefore, presumably there is usually enough evidence to act against many of those involved in corruption or organised crime but not always the political will or judicial authority to do so. Many Russians believe that most if not all government ministers and officials are corrupt and susceptible to bribes. Officials are willing to risk public safety and even national security as well as their reputations for the sake of bribes. Allegations and counter allegations of corruption were used in the 1990s during the power struggle between President Yeltsin and hard-liners such as Rosko and Khasbulatov.

Corruption both in the Soviet era and afterwards existed and increased because the majority of those accepting bribes or using their position for gain position or cash believed that they would not get caught. Even if they did get caught the rate of convictions were not that high. Soviet era clampdowns on corruption under Andropov and Gorbachev only caught small fry and the same could apply during the post-Soviet era. The only notable high ranking communist to be convicted for corruption was Yuri Churbanov in 1988. Churbanov’s father in law was the late Leonid Brezhnev, the one-time Soviet leader and General Secretar


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