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  • Reexamining RussiaCrime Without Punishment
  • Ariel Cohen (bio)

It has long been obvious to all who grasp the disastrous legacy of communism that building democracy in Russia will be no easy task. Seven decades of totalitarian rule, which obliterated private property, economic markets, civil society, mutual trust, and any real concept of citizenship, are not a promising foundation on which to build democratic institutions. In many ways, given the enormity of the obstacles confronting it, Russia has made impressive strides toward democracy and a market economy. Yet even these partial and precarious gains are now imperiled by a danger that few, if anyone, foresaw.

A tidal wave of crime and corruption is sweeping across the Eurasian landmass, threatening to overwhelm the region’s fragile democratic and market reforms. Russia alone is home to thousands of gangs and hardened criminals, and hundreds of mob bosses and illegal organizations with international connections. Tens of thousands of businesses are controlled by organized crime; their gross product is higher than the GNP of many UN members, including several post-Soviet states. 1 The Russian mafiya (a generic term used to refer to all organized crime in the former USSR) is estimated to be worth at least $10 billion. 2 In 1993, more Russians died in criminal violence than did Soviet soldiers during the nine years of war in Afghanistan. 3 In 1994, more than a hundred people were kidnapped and held for ransom in Moscow alone. The situation in other post-Soviet states is even worse: in some of them, criminal gangs have actually controlled the value of the national currency. 4 [End Page 34]

The crime wave could have grave political consequences for Russia, Ukraine, and their neighbors in East Central Europe. Ordinary people, feeling unsafe in the streets, are beginning to regard democracy as the freedom to loot and murder. Crime and corruption, together with pressing economic problems, may well prompt a hard-line backlash in Russia and the ascension to power of an ultranationalist such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky or an imperialist strongman like General Alexander Lebed.

Crime itself has become a major post-Soviet export. Drugs, weapons, and—most alarming of all—nuclear components are being smuggled out of Russia into Western Europe, the United States, and Asia. Criminal syndicates and terrorist organizations around the world can now hire former KGB officers expert in eavesdropping, assassination, and paramilitary tactics. Today, shady businessmen from the East produce briefcases full of cash—up to $3 million at a time—to buy expensive real estate in the West, thus tainting Western economies with huge infusions of illegally obtained money.

There is evidence that top officials of the Russian government are involved in criminal activities, although the administration of President Boris Yeltsin has done very little to investigate charges against them. Defense Minister Pavel Grachev and former First Deputy Defense Minister Matvei Burlakov were accused by the Russian press of arranging the murder of a popular investigative journalist, Dmitrii Kholodov of Moskovskii komsomolets, who was killed by an exploding briefcase in October 1994. Kholodov had published a series of startling exposés on military corruption and was about to testify before a committee of the State Duma when he was assassinated; he reportedly had been told by a source within the Russian military intelligence that the briefcase contained documents exposing corruption in the military. Burlakov was fired, but has escaped prosecution, as has a corrupt deputy finance minister who was recently sacked.

In March 1995, veteran broadcaster Vladislav Listyev, the director-designate of Russia’s national television network, was shot to death execution-style in the vestibule of his Moscow apartment building. His murder, which police admitted they had little hope of solving, appeared to be connected with his plans to attack widespread corruption in the sale of television advertising, corruption in which the mafiya is heavily involved. The Listyev case quickly became a flashpoint in the smoldering political conflict between Moscow mayor (and potential presidential candidate) Yuri Luzhkov and President Yeltsin.

Officials of the Central Bank of Russia (CBR) have participated in fraud and forgery that have cost Russian taxpayers more than $350 million. The incompetent former chairman of the bank, Viktor Gerashchenko, was...

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