The Russian Mafia

August 11, 1994|By Georgie Anne Geyer

St. Petersburg, Russia -- FOUR YEARS ago, in Moscow, the well-informed U.S. ambassador Jack Matlock talked to me about the future of this ancient and troubled state. The talk soon focused on the question of "free rubles" and racketeers.

"The excess currency is all in the wrong hands," he said. "It's in the hands of the gangs who are already extorting the small businesses. Polls show that support is growing for private property, but the way the privatization is going, they're selling the country out to the crooks."

Now, as I return to Russia for my sixth time, the predictions of our perspicacious ambassador have sadly come true. I sit in a downtown office with Nikita Maslennikov, a university professor and adviser to the city's mayor, who tells me the most extraordinary "Mafia" story.

"It is really impossible to run anything here without paying off," he said. "A small cafeteria, for instance, will pay from 30 [percent] to 50 percent to the racketeers. The Mafia even has its own economists. I know a banker who sends them his own schedule of income for the month -- and they decide what percentage he pays."

And so a new question hangs over Russia: Is this "solitude without repose, this prison without leisure," as the French Marquis de Custine hauntingly called Russia in 1839, about to become a criminal-run state -- with Russian-style mob slayings?

The evidence is scary. Two recent studies point to the danger. The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Threat Assessment study of November 1993 reported that the 4,000 organized gangs in Russia now control 40 percent of private businesses, 60 percent of state-owned companies, half the nation's commercial banks, and 50 percent to 80 percent of the shops, hotels and service industries in Moscow.

And the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs reports as well that the "mafiya" controlled as much as 40 percent of the turnover in goods and services by 1993, that criminal cartels have infiltrated banks, stock exchanges and even the rock music industry. The theft of Red Army weapons, including nuclear ones, is considered a real danger.

When, in addition, a senior Russian police official, Col. Vladimir // M. Ponomarenko, gave an extraordinary press conference at the Russian Embassy in Washington, one could see what a strange world we are facing in the post-Cold War. "Russian and American criminals have already entered into close cooperation with each other and have determined the main directions of their work," he said.

The story would end there if it were only a question of crime. It is more. Suddenly there are theories -- partly out of desperation and partly out of a need for some hope somewhere -- that this criminalization of Russia is really only a replay of the American robber baron phase, and it will in a generation or two result in more-or-less respectable capitalists. In Moscow, newspapers and television are even reporting -- positively -- about a "criminal democracy" and a "criminal market."

"In recent weeks, the television and press have been communicating the dubious idea that public order will be brought about by the criminals themselves," wrote Professor Sergei Khrushchev, son of the former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, in the Washington Post recently. "The democratic newspapers publish one article after another about 'noble' racketeers . . .

"Attorneys and economists appear on government television and explain that the preliminary stage of the accumulation of capital is always criminal. They claim that as soon as today's thieves and gangsters become rich, they will begin to pour their millions into production, at which point stability will be required of them . . ."

Mr. Khrushchev soberly concludes that some "mafiya" group with close ties to the government is itself behind this propaganda and "is laying the groundwork for the eventual seizure of power."

Khrushchev's son is, I fear, all too right, and not only about the growing threat from vicious crime here, but also about these suddenly unearthed premises about the racketeers' redemption.

Most important is the fact that these Russian racketeers, if they take power in Russia, will remain vicious killers. Russia's history gives us precious little reason to believe in personal redemption and every reason to beware of the insatiable drive toward ruthless power.

=1 Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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