The Russian 'Mafiya'

POLITICS BY OTHER MEANS

Organized crime is the most explosive force to emerge from the wreckage of Soviet communism. The so-called Russian mafiya has undermined reform, spawned extraordinary levels of violence in major cities, and helped fuel a growing ultranationalist backlash. Although it is considerably less organized than its Western counterparts, and for that reason often misunderstood or underestimated in the West, Russia's crime syndicate constitutes a serious threat to post-Soviet democracy.

The "mafiya," Russian-style, is a hydra-headed phenomenon that feeds on the emerging market economy. Between 3,000 and 4,000 gangs operate in Russia, including several hundred whose activities span the territory of the Commonwealth of Independent States and cross the old Soviet borders into Central Europe and the West.

The definition of Russian organized crime is sometimes stretched for domestic political purposes. Police and politicians still fall into the Soviet habit of ascribing mafiya connections to anyone who possesses what seems an unreasonable amount of money. Total active gang membership in Russia is estimated at less than 100,000 people. Nevertheless, the hazy boundary between criminal and legal business activity has allowed mafiya groups to penetrate most areas of the Russian economy, giving them disproportionate influence.

According to the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), organized crime controlled as much as 40 percent of the turnover in goods and services by 1993. Few entrepreneurs can expect to remain in business for long without being asked to pay money or provide shares in their companies to gun-toting "protectors." In the absence of government regulation, criminal cartels have infiltrated banks, real estate markets, stock exchanges and even the rock music industry. Meanwhile, more traditional criminal pursuits have transformed the economy of regions like Central Asia, which is fast becoming the newest hub of the world narcotics trade. Most unsettling of all, perhaps, is the involvement of organized crime groups in the marketing of stolen Red Army weapons, which then turn up in the ethnic quarrels on Russia's southern borders.

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