Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

Kennan Institute
event summary
Can Russia Fight Organized Crime and Corruption?
January 27, 2003

In a recent lecture at the Kennan Institute, Louise Shelley described Russia's success in fighting organized crime as a process rife with ambiguity. As an example of this ambiguity, she cited the experience of her Center's branch office in Irkutsk. A few years ago the center was closed and the director left the country for a few months after being pressured. The office has now been relocated to an academic department headed by a former KGB agent. Shelley stated that when she is asked whether this compromises the work of the office, she responds that the important thing is that the office is functioning; only now it has protection.

This ambiguity translates to other aspects of Russia's evolving struggle with crime and corruption, according to Shelley. The oligarchs who used their political connections to Yeltsin to amass great personal wealth are consciously imitating America's robber barons to gain acceptance through engaging in philanthropy. While a positive development, Shelley stated, it does not amount to a transformation in the way they operate. They are often merely mimicking American experience to buy credibility.

Shelley argued that a number of obstacles remain in Russia's fight against organized crime. First, organized crime has penetrated state and legal institutions to an alarming degree. This is manifest in the number of unsolved contract killings, targeted prosecutions against rivals, and lack of cooperation with international counterparts. Second, Russia has not developed a "culture of legality" -- rather, its citizens are apathetic towards lawlessness. Even the murder of prominent journalists and politicians provokes little of the outrage seen in Italy's experience with "excellent cadavers" (judges and prosecutors assassinated by the mafia). Finally, Russians have a tradition of passivity in the face of state organs of control. With those organs penetrated by organized crime, the barriers to civic opposition to organized crime and corruption are all the greater.

The glasnost reforms instituted under Mikhail Gorbachev sparked the development of investigative journalism exposing corruption. Shelley noted that in Italy judges assumed the activist role that journalists fulfill in Russia. Unfortunately, under pressure, many journalists, especially in the regions are less vigorous in investigating corruption.

To maintain his hold of power, Yeltsin Yeltsin promoted the interests of certain business factions over those of the state and the citizenry. Shelley cited two examples to support this contention: First, during his presidency Yeltsin promised to pass a new legal code to crack down on corruption, while his administration worked behind the scenes to weaken the new legislation. Second, Shelley noted that over the period of 1986-1996, prosecutions for official embezzlement declined by 33 percent, bribery by 17 percent, and misuse of office by 33 percent.

Shelley argued that the best chance for Russia to successfully combat corruption and organized crime is Russian civil society, especially journalists and NGOs. Unfortunately, she observed, Vladimir Putin does not recognize that social involvement is necessary to break organized crime. His preference is for authoritarian means, but such steps can result in inadvertently promoting corruption and crime. For example, by clamping down on critical press, he undermines journalism's ability to expose corruption. Putin lacks the power to combat corruption alone. At present, Putin lacks the tools and the political will of the elite and power throughout the entire Russian territory to combat corruption and organized crime.

There are no cures for crime and corruption, concluded Shelley. Nonetheless, greater engagement of the government with the citizenry is needed to reduce the level of crime and corruption. A change of attitude, a growth of awareness, and effective monitoring from journalists and NGOs may lead to a reduction in the level of corruption.

Back to the Top    Next Article