Everybody needs a roof

February 29, 1996|By Vladimir Shlapentokh

EAST LANSING, MICH. — EAST LANSING, Mich -- A foreigner who does not know the meaning of terms such as ''affirmative action'' or ''political correctness'' has no chance of understanding life in contemporary America. Post-Communist Russia offers its own lexicon from underground slang. Among these phrases is krysha, best translated into English as ''roof.''

Without understanding ''roof,'' it is virtually impossible to explain important developments in contemporary Russia. Briefly, the term conveys a very important message for the world: The Russian state is highly corrupt and unable to protect its citizens against crimes and arbitrariness. Each active Russian, whether in the economy, politics or media, must look for his own private shield.

The phenomenon we describe here -- the private protection of people in a society with a weak and corrupt state -- was well known in the feudalism of the 9th through 12th centuries. Many peasants in Western Europe voluntarily turned themselves into serfs, exchanging freedom for the protection of landlords. The same phenomenon is prevalent today in Latin America, China and Africa. Even in the United States it exists in private security guards and citizens' self-protection arrangements, as well as in illegal forms such as protection rackets.

The development of ''roof'' in Russia accompanied the ''privatization'' reforms that swept away the Communist apparatus. When the new businessmen faced extortion and blackmail they were unable to appeal to the law-enforcement forces for redress because these forces are themselves corrupt and arrogant. Flower sellers on the street, shopkeepers, private farmers, even bankers and factory managers accepted the offers of criminals to provide them with a ''roof'' against other racketeers.

According to Marc Galeotti, a British researcher, about 80 percent of all enterprises in Russia ''buy a roof'' from criminal gangs. It typically costs 20 to 30 percent of their profit. Other businessmen pay corrupt policemen for protection against criminal gangs. Usually police and criminal structures divide the pickings according to the rule of ''first come, first served.''

Some larger businesses create their own ''roofs,'' recruiting private armies commanded by former KGB and army officers. Philip Bobkov, former deputy chairman of the KGB, for instance, serves as head of security in the financial empire Most.

A ''roof'' in high places

The Russian state machinery also plays the game. Bureaucrats offer ''roof'' to numerous companies against the regulation of other bureaucrats. Most, the financial group, lives under the ''roof'' of Moscow's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, who uses parts of the powerful city apparatus for his private use. Russian banks, according to a report by Olga Kryshtanovskaya in the newspaper Izvestia, prosper only by securing a ''roof'' from state regulators who provide them with cheap credits and help them to buy state property at a fraction of its real value.

A typical story was told to me by a successful doctor who runs a private practice in downtown Moscow. When several racketeers visited him recently offering ''roof,'' he gave them two telephone numbers. One was the police major's; the other was for the leader of another gang in the area. The message to the racketeers was that they might choose between retreat or challenging their rivals.

Parliaments, national and regional, have supplied ''roof'' through the immunity their members enjoy. By some estimates, the number of deputies in the national parliament directly connected with organized crime could be as high as 10 or 15 percent. In local parliaments the number may be higher.

Boris Yeltsin has created his own ''roof.'' In the Soviet past the special guard of the head of state was affiliated with the KGB. Mr. Yeltsin set up a presidential protection structure of men directly loyal to him. Foremost is the Kremlin guard, headed by his friend Alexander Korzhakov.

At the same time, Mr. Yeltsin is a solid ''roof'' for many dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other people in his administration. Moskovsky Komsomolets, the most impertinent Moscow newspaper, reported that the manager of the Kremlin household received in August a special presidential decree which gives him the right to operate a commercial venture free from taxes and customs duties.

Should Mr. Yeltsin lose the presidency, the consequences for those sheltered under his ''roof'' could be catastrophic, perhaps including criminal prosecution, should political rivals seek to exact revenge. His liegemen, therefore, will do their best, by fair means or foul, to delay his departure from the political scene.

The ''roof'' phenomenon is demoralizing to Russian life. The rule of law does not obtain. Economic and political progress are inhibited. Capital and talent flee the country. Foreign companies fear to invest in Russia's potential. Of no less importance, the atmosphere of lawlessness discredits democracy in the eyes of millions of Russians. The success of the opposition in the last parliamentary election has to be directly ascribed to the yearning of Russians for order, even at the sacrifice of political freedoms.

To make radical improvements in their society Russians need, among many other things, political and economic elites devoted to the national interests, not to their private interests. This calls for a moral resurrection. It will not happen soon.

Vladimir Shlapentokh teaches sociology at Michigan State University.

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