Russian discourse on organized crime: why does it prefer to think itself a victim?

There is, it must be said, a great deal of rubbish said and written about Russian organized and transnational crime in the West. Sadly, there’s quite a lot coming from Russia, too. A particularly depressing and, I feel, increasingly common theme emerging in Russian outlets that are often connected with the state uses not so much Western discourse so much as a caricature of Western discourse as a means to attack it, in a technique that is strikingly similar to Soviet-era propaganda.

Consider a recent piece run by Voice of Russia under the rubric Is Russian mafia dangerous? It’s an interesting and telling mix of the accidentally accurate and the (surely?) deliberately propagandistic. Let’s take its various assertions point by point:

The U.S. Department of State claims that Russia has the most dangerous mafia. It must be mentioned, however, that the names of the mafiosos unveiled by the State Department mainly belong to the citizens of Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Armenia and some other countries. …

In July, the US President Barack Obama signed a decree to impose extra sanctions against organized crime groups. Shortly after that, the State Department approved a new list of these crime groups, which says that there is nothing worse than the Russian mafia as far as the US national security is concerned.

I’ve already written about my qualms as to the precise listing of the crime groups noted in this executive order, but if you check out the actual strategy document, it certainly does not identify Russian OC as “the most dangerous mafia” – instead it lists “Eurasian organized crime” as amongst the significant threats (which I would suggest is fair enough), but by no means more than the others. Indeed, in the accompanying executive order, only one Russian gang appears in the list of five…

As regards the matter of non-Russians being involved, that’s absolutely true – but then again that is why the US government tends to use the term Eurasian Organized Crime instead, which clearly does embrace Armenians, etc. At the same time, many of these networks, while multiethnic, do have their center of gravity within Russia itself.

Indeed, the notorious ‘Russian mafia’ was strong in the US in the 1990s, while today there are other criminal groups which pose a much bigger threat to the US, says Sergei Markov, a political expert.

“Criminals from the former Soviet republics are not that dangerous for the US today. The legendary Italian mafia, so well-known thanks to Coppola`s film The Godfather and numerous novels, is still very active in the U.S. In the past 20-30 years, Chinese criminal groups have become much stronger there, too. And with the increasing influx of the Spanish-speaking population into the US, the number of ethnic criminal groups is not declining.”

True – but then again this is taking on a straw man. The US authorities clearly do rate Latin American drug gangs, Chinese gangs, LCN, etc as greater challenges.

Political expert Vilen Ivanov believes that today the term ‘Russian mafia’ is unacceptable.

“This term originated during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was referred to as ‘an evil empire’. But Russia has changed dramatically since then – we have a new regime and a new society. Nevertheless, the attitude does not seem to have changed significantly. Russia remains a rival for the U.S. in some way, causing a kind of a phobia.”

Well, the term ‘Russian mafia’ (or mafiya) really emerged in the 1990s – a specifically post-Cold War phenomenon. Before then, in the 1980s, if I came across it, it was being used by Soviet citizens to talk about their own regime or corrupt cabals within it.

At the same time, ahead of the 2012 presidential elections the Obama administration might want to turn the situation with the ‘Russian mafia’ to their advantage. Since the current US leader approves closer ties with Russia, while his opponents and some US citizens are against it, it may be that the State Department is making negative remarks about Russia on purpose.

Oh, please – we’re back to the whole conspiratorial, military-industrial-bureaucratic complex thesis whereby evil behind-the-scenes manipulators are trying to stop the reset. This is nonsense. We had this during the spy scandal (sure, because it takes a conspiracy to explain why you expel spies), over the Bout case (again, surely only such machinations could explain the persecution of a this poor fellow, who only sought to peddle weapons to terrorists) and now this. In my opinion, if one is going to critique US administration policy it would be that it has been insufficiently robust in dealing with Moscow, but I’ve seen no evidence that the State Department has been trying to stiffen that line – if anything, quite the opposite. Frankly, Russia just isn’t important enough to inside-the-Beltway terms to be such an ideological and political battleground.

So why am I getting so exercised about this? In part it’s just the academic’s proprietorial dislike of seeing one’s own area of specialism misrepresented and mischaracterized for shallow and obvious political interest. But it is also because this kind of propaganda reflects a continuing, willful and disheartening refusal on the part of certain elements within the Moscow elite to recognize certain basic facts:

  • Russian, Russian-based and Eurasian organized crime is a serious global issue; sure, not the biggest players in the global underworld, but certainly in the premier league.
  • To identify and seek to address the problem is not to be anti-Russian. Arguably, quite the opposite – Russians suffer from the activities of Russian organized crime more than any other people. Despite some successes, the Russian law enforcement structures are unable to manage the problem adequately, so external efforts ought to be welcomed, not resented.
  • Politics often are what they seem. US politics in particular, played out as they are amidst the clamor of think tanks and lobbies, under the spotlight of numerous intrusive and partisan media, does not usually lend itself to successful conspiracy. Rather that looking always for some deeper, darker explanation (a key motivation behind the rather foolish political intel mission given those deep-cover spies), Moscow needs to accept that sometimes, the USA means what it says.

Obsessing on invisible and nonexistent subtexts is, after all, one way not to have to think about the text, not to have to face the fact that, as far as the world is concerned, you still are a haven for powerful and sophisticated organized crime gangs, gangs that you seem unable or unwilling systematically to combat…

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