Russian Organized Crime
By Fred Burton and Dan Burges
When the dust settled following a bus explosion in Togliatti, Russia, on Oct. 31, few explanations emerged as to who was responsible for the attack, which killed eight people and injured at least 50. Although terrorism is a possibility, two leading theories place the blame on Russian organized crime.
One such theory suggests that a person (or people) riding the bus was a target of the Russian mob and the other casualties simply collateral damage. Though this act might seem excessive, Russian organized crime has a history of ensuring that it eliminates its targets through excessive use of explosives. A second theory is that Russian organized crime targeted the bus itself as retribution against the bus company, perhaps because the company refused to pay protection money to the mob.
Given the speculation, it is a good time to explore the nature of Russia's crime syndicates and to examine just how far they reach and the lengths they will go to ensure that they maintain an iron grip on the enterprises under their control.
Russian organized crime is an intricate network throughout Russian society whose operations include extortion, fraud, cargo theft, prostitution, drug- and arms-trafficking and more. The Russian mafia has penetrated business and state-run enterprises to a degree unheard of anywhere in the Western world, a fact that start-up firms soon discover. Moreover, its reach in the business realm extends throughout the former Soviet Union.
Unlike the normal situation in civilized societies, there is no clear distinction in Russia between criminal enterprises and the government. In fact, criminal organizations and their leadership often have direct ties to oligarchs and others in positions of power. In order to conduct business in Russia, companies are finding that dealings with the government lead directly to dealings with thugs demanding pay, not for product or services but for protection and other vague promises, including "permission" to conduct business. The protection they are purchasing, however, is from the people they are paying.
When demands are not met or lines are crossed, the result often is a violent and bloody death, regardless of who erred or what sin he committed. In the fall of 2006, a rash of mob-related murders occurred in Russia, often targeting high-profile Russian businessmen in the financial and banking sectors. Contract killings, car bombs, planted explosives and even death by wood chipper are techniques in the Russian mob's repertoire, as would be expected in a country in which "incitement to commit suicide" is a crime.
The Roots of Organized Crime
Corruption in the Soviet Union was bred largely by a state-run economy that left citizens lacking basic goods. Small groups of entrepreneurs emerged to provide items otherwise not available -- and the black market was born. During the transitional period to the Russian Federation, however, organized crime was called upon to facilitate reform in the region -- and the line between business and the criminal underworld became significantly more blurred, perhaps even nonexistent. The new Russian government, however, felt that combating such corruption, at least in the initial stages, would hinder the shift to capitalism.
The social, political and economic crises in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union have caused significant concern in the West, though the connection between Russia's dilemmas and organized crime is not often acknowledged. Moreover, since the Iron Curtain fell, Russian organized crime groups have used the economic reforms and crises to increase their wealth and influence. When then-President Boris Yeltsin called Russia the "biggest mafia state in the world" and "the superpower of crime" in 1994, even he probably had little idea that the situation would only worsen -- particularly in the late 1990s. According to a 1997 report on Russian organized crime by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Western intelligence agencies had proof that the ruling oligarchy protected organized crime syndicates.
In 1992, when Russia began to privatize state property, Russian organized crime groups snapped up the assets. This not only helped to expand and solidify the emerging relationship between the state and organized crime but also gave the crime groups tremendous economic and political power -- as the property gave the criminal organizations direct access to the Russian government. Over the years, organized crime also has conducted certain functions of the government, including dividing territory among competing economic actors, regulating business markets, imposing "taxes" (protection fees) and setting up tariffs, legitimizing the Mafia in the eyes of many Russians as a type of de facto government. Many of the organization's actions are enforced through violence or other forms of coercion -- and it is that propensity for violence that brings organized crime in conflict with the state.
Russian organized crime developed from four main centers of criminality. The first was the historical criminal elite in Russia, the Vory v zakone (thieves-in-law), which was primarily made up of common criminals. This group has been around since before the Soviet Union and has established its own code of conduct and organization.
A second central group was formed by corrupt Communist Party members, government officials and businessmen of the Soviet elite who abused their positions and established mutually beneficial relations with criminal groups. They operated through bribery, payoffs and an underground barter economy. The high profiles of many members of this group and their actions throughout the Soviet era laid the groundwork for the corruption and criminality that followed the collapse of the Soviet system, especially since many of them remained in positions of power. Additionally, former KGB, Spetsnaz commandos and other government officials continue to provide a significant amount of expertise to the Russian mob, including intelligence operations, weapons and demolitions training, as well as operational security techniques.
Another center of organized crime is rooted in Russia's various ethnic and national groups. Among the most influential are the Chechens, Armenians, Azeris, Dagestanis, Georgians and Ingush. These ethnic-based groups are active throughout Russia, as well as in Central Eurasia, and are considered the most violent of criminal groups. Unlike in the United States, however, most organized crime groups in Russia are not based on ethnicity.
The largest of the four centers is a compilation of disparate criminal associations, some controlling a certain geographical sector, others engaging in only one kind of criminal activity and still others with shared experiences, common membership in a sports club or a common leader. These groups operate as organized crime, though they also could be classified under the U.S. definition of a gang.
The diversity of organized crime in Russia is one of the main challenges to fighting it, mainly because it is increasingly difficult to adopt a single approach to the different problems each organization presents. Furthermore, because of the relationships between the government and organized criminal groups, the state finds itself in the unique position of trying to fight the very groups with which it is collaborating.
Unlike groups such as La Cosa Nostra, Russian organized crime cannot be diagrammed using the typical pyramid structure. This is because Russian organized crime is made up of gangs that act autonomously for the most part and have only loose ties to regional, national or international networks. This is where the media portrayal of the monolithic "Russian Mafia" diverges from reality because Russian organized criminal groups are not distinct, centralized entities, and they usually lack the membership rules and codes of honor described in most mafia stories.
Organized crime is a problem in many parts of the former Soviet Union, including Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Ukraine -- much of it originating in Russia. Russian organized crime initially moved from Russia into Eastern Europe and from there into Western Europe, eventually landing in the Western Hemisphere (specifically the United States). Moreover, there are indications that the Russian organized crime sphere of influence now includes Latin America and the Caribbean.
Reports from Interpol and other law enforcement agencies indicate that a variety of Russian criminal organizations, including Poldolskaya, Tambovskaya, Mazukinskaya and Izamailovskaya, have moved into Mexico, operating through multiple small cells and engaging in a wide variety of criminal enterprises. These groups, among others, are known to engage in extortion, prostitution and trafficking in drugs, arms and humans, as well as kidnapping and credit card fraud. Links between Russian organized criminal groups and one or more of the principal Mexican criminal organizations have allowed the Russians to obtain and transport illicit narcotics at a low cost and under relatively secure circumstances for shipment to Europe and Russia. In order to maintain low profiles in Mexico, these groups often operate out of resorts owned by their Mexican business partners.
U.S. law enforcement also has established links between Russian organized crime in the United States and La Cosa Nostra. The two groups appear to be cooperating in such ventures as gambling, prostitution, fraud and extortion. The Russian Mafia is responsible for vice operations from Miami to Tokyo to the Persian Gulf, and it also is deeply tied into Turkish and Israeli organized crime, most of which came from Russia. Additionally, Russian organized crime groups reportedly have been involved in such enterprises as drug trafficking, money laundering and counterfeiting with several other international organized crime groups, including the Sicilian Mafia, the Camorra, the Japanese Yakuza, Chinese Triads, Turkish drug traffickers and Colombian drug cartels.
The Challenge Ahead
With the arrest in August of Vladimir Barsukov, leader of the Tambov crime group, the Russian government took the first step toward cracking down on organized crime -- though the move could have been motivated by internal politics or business. Although ridding Russia of organized crime is probably impossible, if there ever was a time to begin the process, now could be it. Russian President Vladimir Putin might just be powerful enough to attack the Russian Mafia and begin to dismantle its operations from the inside out -- with the government happily taking the pieces -- and he might be able to do so without direct retribution against himself.
With powerful allies (and members) of the Russian mob operating at the highest levels of government, Putin would need to begin with internal housecleaning, forcing those members who abuse their positions for reasons of money and power to choose their loyalty. The most significant source of power for the Russian mob is its connections within the government, and destroying those connections would be a huge feather in Putin's cap.
With hundreds of small groups operating with relative independence and very little formal structure, however, Russian organized crime will not simply collapse should the bosses be taken into custody. Also, with the expansion of the Russian mafia into numerous countries, its members literally can run from the law like rats from a fire. They will find holes to operate in, means for monetary income and illicit activities by which to maintain their chosen lifestyles. Therefore, should Moscow attempt serious overt actions against Russian organized crime families, it will be a critical first step down a long, hard -- and very bloody -- path.
reprinted by permission of Strategic Forecasting, Inc. at www.stratfor.com.