By Roustam Kaliyev
The Russian Mafia poses serious obstacles for Russia’s development and has been perceived as a threat to its neighbors and even the West. Yet few seem to have a clear understanding of how Russian criminal syndicates are organized. The structure of criminal syndicates has evolved considerably due to the changing political circumstances of the late Soviet period and the subsequent upheavals in the Russian Federation. Criminal networks have grown to represent an attribute of the country’s national character. Many in the West expected President Vladimir Putin, who had made his career in the Security Services, to herald a new approach to law enforcement. However, the problem of criminalization of the state at all levels remains.

The problem is not simply corruption, such as bribe taking, that infects the public sphere, but actual criminal activity by governmental and law-enforcement agencies. The organized crime groups in Russia can be divided into 3 major categories: “classic,” “governmental,” and “national.” The classic Mafias are the familiar structures known throughout the world. The governmental structures are the security services and private security agencies that run substantial criminal enterprises. The national Mafias sprang from ethnically Chechen groups, which were initially set up explicitly to protect Chechen business interests but then diversified their activities and membership.

Among the “classic” groupings we find many ethnic, territorial and other criminal groups that formed and functioned along established systems, and were familiar to the law enforcement community. Famous groups include the Tambovskaya, Solnetzevskaya, Tul’skaya and Armenian Mafias. Their activities include: the drug trade, arms trade, smuggling, robbery, contract murder and more recently kidnapping and trade in people.

Prior to the 1990s the security services of the USSR used fairly primitive methods of law enforcement to deal with these classic syndicates. The main mechanism of this system was that the government tolerated the existence of a criminal elite – the so-called “thieves in the law” – 20 or 30 persons who maintained authority by having certain powers, such as influence over criminals in prison, delegated to them. This institution of the “thieves,” which existed in most union republics, was reasonably effective. Besides giving the authorities a lever of influence in the criminal world, the “thieves” were also useful in limiting the formation of new criminal syndicates. To identify and liquidate such networks would otherwise have required tremendous effort and resources. This way the thieves had an incentive to limit competition and the new groups that sprouted up were cut off at the root.

In the early 1990s as Russia’s market became liberalized, the “classic” criminal groupings turned out to be unprepared for the outbreak of new criminal groupings. These new Mafias began a very energetic assault against the old criminal system. According to criminologists, the 1990s were a watershed for Russia’s underworld: the authoritative “thieves” suddenly lost the levers of influence. The “thieves” had no authority with the new groups and had to cede “market-share” to them.

“Governmental” syndicates, an important post-Soviet phenomenon, are a relatively new category of organized crime. They comprise MVD and FSB cadres and members of the multitude of non-governmental security services and mainly seek to profit financially from exercising their powers. For instance, a recent scandal described in Russia’s Moskovsksi komsomolets and Novaya gazeta newspapers revealed high-ranking FSB officials, including Deputy Director Yurii Zaostrovtsev, as well as officials from the procuracy and the customs service illegally importing furniture for sale in a chain of warehouse style stores in Moscow. Instead of paying tariffs into the budget, the owners of such stores were paying protection money to various customs and security officials.

Business has been rife with corruption since the early 90s, when small and medium sized foreign businesses arrived in Russia. A business would not be able to function on the Russian market without paying “tribute.” Worse still, the various racketeers are constantly warring with each other over spheres of influence. The businessman finds himself the object of competing gangs’ attention, and suffers each time there is a rearrangement of spheres.

In Russian slang, protection is called krysha (literally roof). Typically the switch to a new krysha proceeds as follows: two presentable young men appear in the company offices. They ask to see the owner or manager and sit down with him in private. The “guests” question the manager in detail about the business. Then they offer their own protection services. The manager typically responds that he does not need their services because he already has protection (in which case he offers the visitors the phone number of the krysha), or because the company pays its taxes and otherwise obeys the law.

The racketeers leave the office calmly, but check into the information. Depending on what they find they will proceed as follows: 1) If the company has no krysha, they will force the owner to pay tribute. 2) If the company has a weak krysha, the racketeers will take over as a new krysha. 3) The racketeers will leave the company alone only if the existing krysha is connected to the security services or to the Chechens. These last two arguments have almost magical powers to rid the businessman of the racketeers. If it’s fairly obvious why connections to the security services would have this effect, the assertion concerning Chechens requires some elaboration.

Chechen business in Russia is fairly substantial in finance, banking, oil, metallurgy and bulk sale, and operates on a refusal to pay tribute. Chechens were determined to remain independent for the sake of honor, even when this meant open confrontation with the racketeers. Chechens used every resource available to them: family connections, the police and the courts, and if that failed they used force. This posture owed a great deal to the fact that, unlike Western or other newcomers, Chechens had strong networks to protect themselves. When thugs pressured Chechen businesses, other Chechens would do the maximum in their power to limit the activities of the racketeers.

In short time, Chechens became virtually the only category of business that could resist krysha (though some Chechens did affiliate themselves with governmental syndicates). Word about the Chechens spread among foreign executives, who began to include Chechens in investment projects – Chechens with experience in protection became the preferred source of it over time, and Chechen groups formed initially to protect Chechen business became Mafia groupings. The now notorious Chechen Mafioso Khozh A. Noukhaev got his start this way. Syndicates in this category are called “national” because they formed initially on the basis of nationality and due to particular cultural traits. However after the formative stage the groups developed a multinational character employing Russians, Armenians, Georgians, Ukrainians and others.

Analysts in Russia and in the West had interpreted the Putin presidency as the start of a vigorous campaign against the criminalization and corruption of the Yeltsin period. The last two years have seen a substantial increase in the growth and power of the security services, which is connected to their role in the war in Chechnya. These changes have altered the balance of power among the Mafia types but has not altered the overall system or brought about a greater attention to the rule of law.

Roustam Kaliyev has traveled repeatedly in Chechnya during the present war, and has contributed articles to Moskovskiye Novosti and Obschaya Gazeta. Miriam Lanskoy translated this article from Russian into English.

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