Russia is a "mafia state" that works closely with organized crime networks to extort business, persecute rivals, rig elections, and traffic weapons.
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.