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Opinion: Russia the mafia state Maria Snegovaya on how the ‘rule of the rulers’ supplants the ‘rule of law’

Photo: Mikhail Dzhaparidze / TASS / Scanpix

As Vladimir Putin's presidency and entourage of friends and officials grow older and more entrenched, there's been a notable surge of interest in the corrupt schemes that keep Russia's powerful wealthy and where they are. In his annual press conference on December 17, for example, Putin himself was forced to address accusations about his attorney general's ties to convicted mobsters. In an opinion piece for the newspaper Vedomosti, columnist and Columbia University doctoral student Maria Snegovaya argues that the concept of the "mafia state" is vitally important to understanding the nature and threat of Russia's political system today. Meduza translates that text here.

In early December, Alexey Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation caused a sensation when it published an investigation, part of which claims that friends of Attorney General Yuri Chaika, along with his sons, have business ties to the wives of mafia bosses Sergei Tsapok and Vyacheslav Tsepovyaz—men imprisoned for the 2010 Kushchevskaya massacre that killed 12 people, including four children. Tsapok, the leader of a deadly gang credited with 19 murders, was active in Kushchevskaya for over a decade, from 1998 until his arrest in 2010. 

In those days, The New York Times published the details of an investigation by Spanish prosecutors about the ties of the "Russian mafia" in Spain to top officials and influential circles in Russia. That investigation suggested that the chairman of Russia's Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, might owe his career to crime boss Gennady Petrov.

There's other evidence, too, of the deep links between Russian organized crime and the halls of the Kremlin. In 2010, for instance, Wikileaks released information suggesting that some Russian crime bosses and organized crime groups operate under the tacit protection of the state, which uses them to perform tasks the Russian government can't undertake directly. 

According to José Grinda, Spain's special prosecutor for corruption and organized crime, in Russia "it's impossible to draw a straight line between the actions of the state and organized crime groups," but there are proven links between Russia's pro-Kremlin political parties concerning "organized crime and arms trafficking," including arms shipments to the Kurds in an attempt to destabilize Turkey in 2010. Grinda also notes the "enormous control" the Russian mafia wields over some strategic sectors of the world economy, such as the aluminum and natural gas markets, which became possible, he says, thanks to the Kremlin's close cooperation with criminal groups.

Because of the close contacts between the Russian elite and the mafia, some Interpol agents are even reluctant to provide Russian law enforcement with important secret information, fearing that it will become available to criminal groups.

Russia didn't invent the mafia state

The mafia state is not a new phenomenon in political science. According to Carnegie's Moisés Naím, new technologies emerging in the past two decades have helped criminal groups expand beyond their traditional markets, and these groups have begun actively penetrating the political structures of different countries, like Bulgaria, Guinea-Bissau, Montenegro, Myanmar (Burma), and Venezuela. As a result, the national interests of these countries have ended up tightly intertwined with the interests of organized crime. 

Hungarian political scientist Bálint Magyar wrote a whole book about the main features of the ruling elite in mafia states, which he describes as a new type of authoritarian regime that's particularly common in post-communist states. The inspiration for Magyar's book was Hungary's modern political system, which formed when Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party came to power in 1998. Magyar argues that mafia states are distinctive for rooting their strategic enterprises in family relationships. 

For the mafia, nepotism is an appealing way to organize business, because blood ties offer greater loyalty and trust in the system. These enterprises are usually founded by members of "the family" and certain political elites adopted into the family. As examples, Magyar offers Fidesz-affiliated mega-corporations like the firm Vegyépszer during the first Fidesz government, and later the company Közgép, which operated in the construction industry and prospered thanks to favorable state procurement contracts and government investments. 

The bonds of blood and business partnerships increasingly tie together the members of an organization, gradually encompassing more and more "families" (Magyar compares this process with the spread of an octopus' tentacles), putting them under the control of a single head at the top of the power hierarchy. Gradually, the mafia state (that is, the criminal elite) under the control of the head of "the family" expands across the whole country. 

Nepotism provides greater stability, to the degree that the system becomes closed: you can't get out voluntarily, except by being expelled (usually with unfortunate consequences).

For mafia states, political power and major economic assets are typically concentrated in the hands of the same individuals. Magyar writes, "In the mafia state, the state-led invasion of private interests has become systematic, and public interests are permanently subordinated to private interests. There are hardly any areas where activities would not be subject to power and wealth accumulation considerations. The mafia state is a privatized form of a parasite state."

In order to improve the standing of a particular political-financial group, the system fights aggressively against independent accumulations of financial resources, eventually nationalizing them (for the benefit of specific individuals, but not for the country as a whole). In Hungary, for example, when Orbán nationalized private pension funds, he actually took away from the population's savings. The biggest state corporations are often owned or controlled—officially or unofficially—by relatives of political elites. 

Goodbye, 'rule of law.' Hello, 'rule of the rulers.'

According to Magyar's work, political institutions in mafia states erode, as their functions are gradually replaced by the arbitrary decisions of the head of state, who effectively comes to own the country. The rule of law gives way to the "rule of the rulers," when every state institution includes commissars from the ruling family. In particular, the "rule of the rulers" can be based on "codes of honor" familiar to mafias: conspiracies of silence, unquestioning obedience to the head of an organization, and the law of never disclosing internal information to outsiders (washing the dirty laundry in public is strictly forbidden). 

All this secrecy corresponds to the concept of "bulldogs fighting under the rug," when the public has no idea about the real balance of power or the problems of the elite. Major decisions are made in complete secrecy, without any public debate. 

In a 2012 article, titled "Mafia States: Organized Crime Takes Office," Moisés Naím highlights another feature of these systems: because of the intertwining of state officials' interests with the interests of organized crime, mafia states actively participate in illegal trade on foreign markets, and are therefore more inclined to use force in situations where their access to these illicit trade networks is threatened. Naím illustrates his thesis by pointing to the conflict in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where senior Russian officials involved in business deals with criminal circles in these regions may have had an interest in a war with Georgia in 2008.

In this context, the elites in mafia states are far less averse to risk and military escalation than elites in other countries. Another danger is that criminal circles in mafia states can gain access to nuclear weapons, with potentially unpredictable consequences. For example, North Korea has the means and motivation to export nuclear materials, but it doesn't always control their distribution through illegal networks, which could destabilize an already volatile situation.

As we see, the concept of the "mafia state" allows us to understand many features of these elites' behavior. Sadly, judging by the examples listed above, mafia states pose a threat not only to their own people, but also the world as a whole.