Euroasia Insight: Russia's organized crime
- EURASIA INSIGHT January 31, 2002
RUSSIA'S ORGANIZED CRIME: A TYPOLOGY
Part I: How the Mafias Were Formed
Roustam Kaliyev (Chiharro): 1/31/02
Part I of a two-part series.
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
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
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
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.
Editor's Note: Roustam Kaliyev (Chiharro) 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.
This is part one of a two-part series. Part two will consider how the
start of the new Chechen war affected organized crime.