Ivan Golunov, Jan Kuciak, and the politics of the last straw (or the last straws…)

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I’m always wary of grand claims that “everything has suddenly changed”, not least because specific events tend rather to be the dots on the graph that show us wider processes and trends rather than true historical junctures in their own right. But I have just got back from Slovakia, where the 2018 murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírováled to the downfall of a government and — arguably — the political backlash against a cronyist status quo that saw the rise of the brand-new Progressive Slovakia party, and the election of their presidential candidate, Zuzana Čaputová. People knew that their politics were corrupt, that cosy deals between businesspeople, gangsters are officials were commonplace, and that it was not necessarily safe to probe too deeply into them. The 27-year-old Kuciak did, though, and when he died, it somehow catalysed a long-building public anger at the status quo. Somehow, this felt different, and not just within Slovakia’s relatively small and tightly-knit political and media classes.

So too the arrest of Russian journalist Ivan Golunov feels as if may be another of these catalytic moments. He dug a little too deeply into too many corrupt deals in Moscow, and the shabby and pretty transparent frame-up and subsequent beating at the hands of the police has become a cause celebre. People have queued up to protest ever since the arrests, cultural figures are openly criticising the case, and three heavyweight newspapers – Vedomosti, RBC and Kommersant – are all running covers tomorrow that say “We are Ivan Golunov.”

On the one hand, it is easy to be a little skeptical. After all, such cases happen all the time in Russia, alas — but not usually in Moscow. That people are still willing to be investigative journalists in the provinces, a career every bit as safe and comfortable as being a war correspondent, continues to inspire and amaze me. Their cases fail to make the same splash, though, even when they lead to murder, not mishandling. It would be easy to snark, to say that Golunov’s status as a member of the Muscovite media family is what made this one prominent, that it is his friends and colleagues who have made this such a big deal — or those who fear they might be next. But so what? It is not just journalists who are protesting, and there is often a degree of arbitrariness as to which stories catch the public attention and which do not. Several people in Slovakia, after all, said that Kuciak’s age was a crucial issue, that even for members of the elite they could feel that it could have been one of their children.

On the other, it is easy to get carried away, to see this as some tipping point, the beginning of the end for a corrupt system. Obviously, we’ll have to see, as the truth of the matter is that we rarely spot those pivotal moments at the time. The scale of the protests and the way these newspaper have coordinated their very public responses are striking, to be sure, but I don’t think this is the cause of some sea change. Rather — and actually I think this is a more optimistic perspective — I think it is a symptom.

I faced some pushback last week when, in response to a story about Levada polling that showed growing willingness to join protests, I suggested that even though many of the issues ostensibly causing them were very specific and local, this should be seen as demonstrating a shift in attitudes. Ultimately, however much even the protesters might try to deny it, everything is political.

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The social contract of late Putinism allows a degree of protest, activism, even democracy — as long as it does not seem to be a threat to the core interests of the state and Putin and his close cronies personally. Civil society, even politics, exist, but the etiquette is to protect that there is not a direct connection between the irritants, whether road tolling, environmental damage, or whatever, and the overall political situation. Of course, though, everyone knows there is; everyone understands that the fundamental root causes are corruption, inefficiency, clientelism and unresponsiveness within the ruling elite.

The Kremlin presumably assumes that, like the fake party politics of the Zyuganov ‘n’ Zhirinovsky circus, this bleeds off pressure and helps maintain the status quo. But a key difference is that these protests are generated from below, not choreographed from above. Little by little, they create the organisational habits, structures and skills of protest, and also a culture of calling power to account. When an especially egregious case such as Golunov’s comes along, one that has the right characteristics — it’s in Moscow, it’s patently unfair, it’s close to the heart of the mobilising media, and it fits general assumptions about how “they” punish “us” — then not only does it push these processes forward a little, but we get to see them at work.

It is not likely to be the last straw, by any means. In Slovakia’s case, after all, there was a free media and genuine democracy not only to turn popular dissatisfaction into political change, but also to help encourage people that such an outcome was possible and worth fighting for. But it may prove to have been one of them.

Launch events in London for ‘The Vory’

Screen Shot 2018-03-10 at 14.09So, although alas it will be be weeks before I get to see the final version myself, the advance copies of my new book, The Vory: Russia’s super mafia (Yale University Press) are here, and the count-down to its release begins. It will be published on 10 April in the UK, and 22 May in the US. Meanwhile, I just wanted to flag up some launch events in London next month.

The actual launch will be at Pushkin House at 7pm on Monday 16 April, at which I’ll be talking about the writing of the book and, especially, the historical and cultural evolution of this organised crime subculture, and how far it has come to permeate Russia today.

Then, at Waterstones Gower Street on 6:30pm on Tuesday 17 April I’ll be in conversation with Matt Potter, author of the excellent Outlaws, Inc. (on Russian arms-and-everything-else air smugglers) on gangsters, Russia, and writing about these shadowy topics. Note that the price of a ticket includes a copy of The Vory and a drink – a bargain!

There will then be a closed session at Chatham House on Wednesday 18 April, which will soon be up on their events schedule, discussing the current Russian organised crime situation. I’ll update with a link when it is available.

***PLEASE NOTE – MY US TRIP HAS ALAS HAD TO BE CANCELLED, AND THESE EVENTS WITH THEM. For those of you in the States, I would also parenthetically mention that I’ll be giving a book talk at the NYU Jordan Centre on the Advanced Study of Russia at 12:30 on 4 April, and another talk on Russian organised crime at Colgate University on 2 April at 4:30pm.***

Beyond that, there are one or two other possibilities still under discussion, and again I will update this post if, as, and when they firm up. You can also keep up to date by following me on twitter (@MarkGaleotti) or on my Facebook page Mark Galeotti on Russia.

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

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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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