The ‘Prophylactic Conversation’ and the management of Russian organised crime: the Ekaterinburg example

gangstersgrave

Ekaterinburg still seems to have the best crop of gangster gravestones

Back when Yuri Andropov headed the KGB, the Soviet political police replaced, or at least supplemented the blunter instruments of earlier times with more subtle and insidious ones. One such was the profilakticheskii razgovor, the ‘prophylactic conversation.’ Someone identified as a possible problem – talking too openly critically about the Party, say, or trying to get the trade union actually to represent workers’ interests – would be invited to the local KGB office, just for a chat.

Depending on the quality and delicacy of the interlocutor, often no threats would be made, no accusations advanced. It would be just that, a chat. How’s the job? I hear your kid is applying to university next year, that must be exciting. I hope your grandmother’s illness clears up soon. But of course, in a system when a severe and spiteful state controls everything, both sides knew that every word was a threat. A good job could be replaced with a bad one; a child could get rejected from university; medical care could be withheld. Few people have the ruthlessness with themselves or others to be heroes in such circumstances. Andropov’s dictum was, after all, maximum effect for minimal force.

Increasingly, this has become a tool also used with organised crime. The state does not control organised crime (let alone vice versa), but the relationship is complicated. Much of the time, it genuinely fights it, but at other times it recognises a degree of symbiosis. This is not just about the many interconnections, especially at the local level, between political, business and underworld elites. It is also because, like post-war Japan for most of its history, there is something of a sense that organised crime is better that its disorganised counterpart.

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Crimintern: How the Kremlin uses Russia’s criminal networks in Europe

C9s92ljW0AAhnPtMy latest report for the ECFR is out. While I am waiting for the bidding war for the film rights, I’ll settle for pointing people in its direction – you can download it free here – and offer up the summary:

  • Over the past 20 years, the role of Russian organised crime in Europe has shifted considerably. Today, Russian criminals operate less on the street and more in the shadows: as allies, facilitators and suppliers for local European gangs and continent-wide criminal networks.
  • The Russian state is highly criminalised, and the interpenetration of the criminal ‘underworld’ and the political ‘upperworld’ has led the regime to use criminals from time to time as instruments of its rule.
  • Russian-based organised crime groups in Europe have been used for a variety of purposes, including as sources of ‘black cash’, to launch cyber attacks, to wield political influence, to traffic people and goods, and even to carry out targeted assassinations on behalf of the Kremlin.
  • European states and institutions need to consider RBOC a security as much as a criminal problem, and adopt measures to combat it, including concentrating on targeting their assets, sharing information between security and law-enforcement agencies, and accepting the need to devote political and economic capital to the challenge.

I confess I am pleased with the ‘Russian-based organised crime‘ notion, that I think fills an ontological niche, in that it is clear that there is a difference between those gangs which still have strong connections to Russia — who could as easily be Georgians, or Dagestanis, or whoever — and those who have essentially moved out of the country. It is the former who are especially susceptible to use by the Russian security apparatus, and who genuinely worry me. (And yes, I’m also pleased with the title…)

From Trump’s Washington to the Capitals of Europe, Corruption is Russia’s Greatest Ally

The steady drumbeat of Russian contacts with Trump’s team on one level should not surprise. The Russians – like most real and wannabe global powers – assiduously network, hoping to gather insights and make connections that can later be parlayed into access and impact. This is, however, a case study of the way that the dirty little vices of modern democracy, from the inter-connectivity of transnational and untransparent business interests to the use of money and flattery to buy a voice, all the ways in which democracy becomes distorted by money, serve as a force multiplier for predatory authoritarian kleptocracies.

In fact, my view is that for the West today, the greatest security threat is not Russian tanks or Russian disinformation, it is our own corruption – and the ways Russia seeks to use it.

Let’s look at the Trump White House. I still have serious doubts about some of the headline allegations kicked off by Steele’s ‘Trump dossier,’ from the ‘salacious’ stuff (that has become the code word of choice, after all…), to the suggestion that Trump has been given 19% of oil giant Rosneft as the bribe of the millennium in return for lifting sanctions. (Though that would mean we know the market value of the White House: about $11 billion.) Much more plausible is the general picture of regular, lower-level contacts between Russian officials and American movers and shakers, regardless of the serious tensions between their countries.

There are all kinds of contacts which are appropriate, unavoidable, and wholly acceptable. Some of the administration’s more strident critics need to be reminded that not every Russian is a spy or a gangster. However, all the mysterious bouts of amnesia or dependence on covert meetings suggests that even the participants realise they are transgressing the acceptable, and that they are probably not meeting simply to further international cooperation or exchange banalities about the weather.

In a dark past, America was ripped apart by the search for reds under the beds. Much of this was paranoid witch-hunting, but there were indeed those motivated by ideology, a sense that the Soviet Union represented something greater for humanity. Today? Sure, some imbecilic racists and blinkered social conservatives may believe that Putin’s Russia stands for their values, but the people we are talking about, the people who matter, are in the main neither simpletons nor idealists, but pragmatically self-interested.

Those in Trump’s campaign and his administration who retain links with Russians do so not because they are dazzled by Putin, less yet by Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky. They do so because it suits and pleases them, because the Russians offer something: flattery, information, personal gain.

This is not necessarily the crude corruption of a suitcase of cash in return for documents or a favourable vote. It is rather the more insidious corruption of hooking people on the notion that the Russians can help you get closer to your financial and personal goals. After all, the biggest differences between this new Cold War and the old one is that there is little real ideological dimension, and our societies and economies are now incestuously connected. Russians buy penthouses in London and New York, Americans buy Russian stocks, Russian-funded media buy insert spreads in Western newspapers, and so forth. Much of this is essentially innocent, or at least as innocent as modern capitalism can be, but these are the wellsprings of the global rivers in which Moscow’s spies and agents of influence can freely swim.

In other words, the real story is about the way that the rich and the powerful may regard Russia as a geopolitical antagonist, and yet be happy to cut deals with Russians if it helps them become richer and more powerful.

But this is not just an American story. In Europe, too, corruption is Moscow’s friend. From the lobby groups which agitate against the Ukraine sanctions because they are suffering as a result, to the politicians happy to mobilise anti-US and anti-EU sentiment with the aid of Russian money and airtime to their own ends, this is a widespread issue.

The greatest danger, I would suggest, is not so much the overt ‘Putin-understanders’ such as the Czech Republic’s President Miloš Zeman or Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Of course, they are convenient for Moscow, not least because their words can be retransmitted for propaganda purposes, and their sentiments erode the European consensus on punishing Russia for its aggression in Ukraine. But at the same time, these are not fifth columnists looking to hand over their country to Putin.

The real threats are those motivated not by naïve or contrarian but probably genuine and consistent beliefs, but by corruption. These are the cynics and opportunists, and they are dangerous for several reasons. First of all, unlike the Zemans and Orbans of this world, they may be subtle and covert, couching their lobbying and sabotage in the language of good business sense, or European resistance to American ‘bullying,’ or whatever other rationalisation seems more appropriate. They can also be used as deniable fronts for Russian operations; the continuing (if unproven) belief that then-head of Lukoil in the Czech Republic Martin Nejedly funded Zeman’s campaign on Moscow’s behest (for which he was later recompensed) is a perfect example. Was this just a case of a Czech funding a Czech campaign, openly and entirely within the law, or foreign interference? And how do you prove the latter?

Secondly, they are self-propelled. They do not look to the Kremlin for instructions, although inevitably sometimes Moscow will seek to direct them. They will look for ways to advance their own causes, sometimes actually by seeking new ways to make themselves useful, because usefulness is rewarded. If it is true that members of Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow to get him elected, did the Russians drive the whole process, or at what point did their American interlocutors begin to make suggestions and requests? You do not need to corrupt those who are already corrupt, and who will instead approach you and see what you are willing to offer.

Thirdly, they not only take advantage of the fluidity of modern capital and ideas, the difficulty modern states have in proving where money came from, where ultimately ownership of an asset lies. They actively seek to protect and extend this system. The drug lord, the spy, the terrorist, and the ruthless financial-political player all have a shared interest in foiling efforts to reverse this process. From the struggle to extend anti-kleptocracy laws in London, to the death-of-a-thousand-amendments facing new transparency laws in Prague, this is a battle being fought across the West, and yet one we have yet properly to appreciate is about security as much as fighting crime or controlling corporate malpractice.

The difficulty in regulating finances, the challenges addressing disinformation, and the failure often to monitor and limit campaign contributions, are all aspects of a common and systemic problem of corruption. The Russians – and not only the Russians – are taking fullest advantage of this, and this makes it one of the most important battlefields of a conflict which is as much as anything else about values, laws and ideas. What is being played out in Washington is as much as anything else a case study in how pernicious and wide-spread the challenge has become.

One-and-a-Half Cheers for new Czech centre to resist Political Warfare

mvcrOn 1 January, the Czech Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats (CPTHH) is formally opened, within the Ministry of the Interior (MVČR). With a 20-strong staff, its main focus will be to tackle disinformation and political manipulation through the media–and yes, essentially this means Russia’s current ‘political war’ on the West–and to respond openly. My snap verdict is that this is a worthy start, but the Czechs, like other European countries, need also to move beyond this fashionable but essentially reactive approach and think more strategically and perhaps also robustly about fighting this political war.

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Putin’s regional reshuffle: the rise of “men in epaulettes” or just a search for reliable cadres?

The most recent reshuffle of regional officials is at once precisely what presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov called the “usual cyclical rotation” and also an interesting snapshot into the staffing policies and priorities of today’s Kremlin.

SlonInfographic

Who’s out? The old and the dirty?

It was usual in that as with most reshuffles, one or two dismissals or retirements tend to create cascading reappointments, as people move up, down or across the system. In this case, Federal Customs Service (FTS) chief Andrei Bel’yaninov’s dismissal courtesy of a corruption probe probably triggered an overdue bout of reorganization. Mikhail Zurabov, ambassador to Ukraine, had been in place for seven years and the position really needed new blood (perhaps an unfortunate expression…), while Siberian polpred (presidential plenipotentiary) Nikolai Rogozhkin, at 64, was also due for retirement. Kirov governor Nikolai Belykh, also under investigation for corruption, was another figure hanging on by his fingertips. Given that the Kremlin had little love for this liberal businessman – the jury is still out on whether his arrest was a put-up job – he was hardly likely to survive. Finally, Sergei Yastrebov, governor of Yaroslavl region, whose future is still unclear, has certainly been the target of some gossip and allegations in the past (though who isn’t?).

On the whole, then, it is striking that those dismissals not explained by age actually appear to reflect genuine questions about their effectiveness and honesty. Belykh’s case is unclear, admittedly. This is hardly conclusive, but it does incline me further to believing that – while corruption allegations and the like remain a weapon of personal feud and state repression – there is at the same time a real, quiet campaign to redefine the social contract with the elite such that they “steal a little bit less, do their job a little bit better.”

Who’s in? The uniformed…?

Predictably, considerable attention has focused on the security service background of many of the new appointees. According to Stanislav Belkovsky “All the figures appointed today are Putin’s personal bodyguards.” Hardly.

New FTS chief Vladimir Bulavin was previously polpred to the North-Western Federal District, but he had been a Colonel General in the FSB. New acting governor of Kaliningrad region Evgenii Zinichev had been head of the region’s FSB directorate, but before that one of Putin’s bodyguards in the FSO. Dmitri Mironov, incoming governor of Yaroslavl region, had been deputy interior minister, but before than an FSB officer. Finally, new National Guard deputy commander Sergei Melikov had been a career MVD Interior Troops officer and commander of the Moscow ‘Dzerzhinskii Division’ before becoming presidential plenipotentiary to the North Caucasus. Viktor Vasil’ev, head of the Federal Service for State Registration, Cadaster and Cartography (Rosreestr), and a former KGB veteran, became the new governor of Kirov.

But it is worth questioning the quick and easy assumptions that this shows some “rise of the siloviki.” First of all, two of these positions – deputy commander of the Rosgvardiya and head of the FTS – were almost automatically going to go to candidates with a military, security or law enforcement background. So really we are talking about three siloviki in the remaining seven significant promotions.

But while the others certainly have significant current or recent time in the “organs,” Vasil’ev served in the KGB 1985-early 1990s, largely in foreign intelligence. Although there are the usual litanies that “once in the KGB, always in the KGB,” that is demonstrably not true. That over twenty years ago he was in the KGB hardly makes him “one of them” these days, so to be honest I’d exclude him from the roster. So in practice, two out of seven.

Finally not forget that two of the outgoing figures – KGB veteran Bel’yaninov and soldier and Interior Troop commander Rogozhkin – were also siloviki. Indeed, Bel’yaninov was generally considered to have a personal connection of sorts to Putin following time in St. Petersburg. Take out the career diplomat and you have two of four senior dismissals coming from a silovik background, too.

…Or just the trusted and efficient?

Of course we can point to other recent leapfrogging promotions granted to siloviki, notably from the FSO: Viktor Zolotov to head the Rosgvardiya and Alexei Dyumin to become acting governor of Tula. (Though Dyumin’s move was probably a consolation prize for failing to become head of military intelligence.) Nonetheless, it does seem that the case for a “spookification” of the government is hardly made.

Rather, I would suggest the truth is a little more nuanced. In the run-up to the Duma elections and then the 2018 presidentials, at a time of growing tension in the Moscow elite and also between Moscow and the regions, Putin is looking to renovate the regional cadres and reaffirm central control. The governors and the polpredy are crucial to this process on the political level, just as the National Guard is on a coercive one.

So he is casting about for candidates he feels he can trust, who are honest (enough), loyal (enough) and efficient (enough). In part, this means not just the uniformed services but the ones he knows personally; it is striking, for example, not just how he now turns more often to the FSO even than the FSB, proportionate to the size of the respective agencies, but also that he no longer seems to be appointing soldiers.

With the exception of new North-Western Federal District polpred Nikolai Tsukanov, around whom a reasonable cloud of scandals swirl, most of the rest do share a reputation for a degree of efficiency that elevates them from their peers. None of them could be called liberals or freethinkers, necessarily, but nor are they all close-minded Kremlin clones. Some (notably new North Caucasus polpred Oleg Belaventsev and his Siberian counterpart Sergei Menyailo) are meant to be close to Sergei Shoigu. Others (including Vasil’ev) are meant to have an almost Medvedevian belief in the importance of rule of (tough) law, and for that matter Dmitri Ovsyannikov, who moves from deputy minister for trade and industry to governor of Sevastopol, was given his big break by Medvedev. (He was presumably appointed to try and do something about the city’s economy, after all.)

Putin generally and genuinely believes his “new aristocracy” of security officers are more likely to be loyal and efficient, but I think to believe that what we are seeing “The Men in Epaulets Take Over” mistakes cause and effect. Putin is indeed looking to remont, to repair the Power Vertical and he may look first to the siloviki for the human resources he needs, but he will also look beyond. I suspect this is a man building a new regional elite, likely also with an eye to a post-2018 order, not rewarding “his boys” willy-nilly.

 

Russia under pressure: more crime, more petty

Police BadgeAccording to the MVD’s latest figures, January saw total numbers of recorded crime rise by 4.6% on last year’s (to almost 172,000) but the proportion of serious crimes fall by almost 3%. Some quick and preliminary thoughts:

The absolute level of serious crime is still up–yes, it fell as a proportion, but of a total that rose even faster–yet much less so than other crimes. These other crimes tend to be low-level instances of unpremeditated inter-personal violence and petty theft such as shoplifting. In other words, crimes which are often a pretty good indicator of underlying levels of social and economic pressure on the general population.

Last year overall, the crime rate was 8.6% up. In part, I think this reflects continued improvement in actually recording offences, cutting down on so-called “latent crime” (despite all the challenges, there is still progress), but in the main I think this is a genuine rise, even if not quite as high as that figure suggests.

So, does the January figure actually reflect an improvement? Maybe, but looking month-by-month, January tends to be a less “elastic” month anyway, perhaps because of holidays, higher levels of street policing in the main cities, etc. It’s too soon to say for certain, although it is also worth noting that there is considerable anecdotal evidence of a resurgence in petty police corruption because of the direct and indirect economic pressures on them (I talk about this a little here), which could also lead to renewed under-reporting. It will be interesting to see how the February and March figures pan out.

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