What Mafia pervades the daily lives of its country and has connections and control of the highest levels in its country's government? The Italian Mafia, the Colombian drug cartels, the Chinese Mafia? How about the Russian Mafia? The power and presence of the Russian Mafia is one that transcends the daily life of its country.
The term "Mafia" can create specific stereotypical images for most Americans. Popularized through the media such persons as Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and other Italian or Sicilian Mafia members spring to mind. The American definition of Mafia does not transcend to the rest of the world. Most people in the United States think of a Mafia member as a person who is in a particular gang or criminal organization (the "boss" and his "soldiers"). Also, if the name Mafia should arise in association with any crime, whether that crime be white collar or violent, most Americans immediately place blame on the Mafia members. Finally, the organizational structure of strict hierarchy and life-time codes are the popular views found in the United States. The Russian meaning of Mafia differs, dramatically in some areas, from this American perspective.
While Americans have specific parameters regarding what a Mafia is and who a Mafia consists of, in Russia this membership is much more far reaching. According to Finckenauer and Waring, those who comprise the Russian Mafia can include someone in an organized crime group, those who control the economic and political power in various regions of Russia, corrupt government employees, or in the past, the Communist Party itself (171). Because such a variety of persons can be considered a part of the Mafia, Russians rightfully believe that the blame for the commission of Mafia crimes, violent or non-violent, can fall equally upon an organized crime group member or a corrupt government employee. The Mafia, no matter where it exists, can not survive without the assistance of corruption within the government. While Russians, therefore, place corrupt officials in the Mafia category, most Americans continue to reserve the image of a Mafia member to a "hitman" or "boss." It is also noteworthy that many within Russia believe that the term Russian Mafia is unfair to ethnic Russians because the majority of those involved in the Mafia organizations are Armenian, Georgian, Ukrainian, Jewish, and Belorussian.
There are two perspectives regarding the origins of the Russian Mafia. One perspective feels the roots began in the 1600's among the large numbers of thieves. While unorganized and common in the beginning, the 1700 and 1800's saw an increasingly organized group that was responsible for the majority of crimes in the Soviet Union. It is claimed that these thieves numbered several million and lived by their own rules and jargon. The term "vor" described a professional criminal who did not engage in any legal activity. In order to become a vor, a thief must be voted in by other vory. The vory lived by many codes, and among the top of this list was their antigovernment philosophy. While this philosophy may have been beneficial to the vory in the earlier years, it also appears to be a stumbling block in current mafia practices. One in which everyday interaction with corrupt government officials is a necessity for an organizations profits and power. Current vory involvement in the Russian Mafia varies among expert opinion. While some experts still consider the vory to have important status and influence among the Russian Mafia, other experts state that the vory have very little involvement and are reduced to common street crimes.
The second perspective believes that the roots of the Russian Mafia began during the Bolshevik Revolution in the early 1900's when many professional criminals sided with the Bolshevik revolutionaries. This perspective sees the intertwined relationship between government officials and professional criminals existing through the Communist years and continuing to the present. During the Communist years, it is stated that Communist Party members existed above the law and that they were the real organized crime figures during that time. White-collar crimes of bribery, kick-backs, and document tampering were common and lucrative for corrupt government officials. Crimes committed by government officials were not limited to the white-collar variety. During the 1960's, 70's, and 80's, many violent crimes were also traced to government officials.
It was a hope that the break-up of the Soviet Union and a move toward an open market type of economy would have created greater opportunity and competition of legitimate businesses, and that the role of the Mafia would then be reduced. Unfortunately, corruption and the Mafia have only grown stronger over the last seven years. While official reports from Russia express that approximately 8,200 criminal organizations exist in Russia with their members numbering some 32,000 people, others argue that the actual number of true organized crime syndicates number less than 100. What is not argued is the detrimental effects that the Russian Mafia has on its country. Consider these statistics, it is estimated that there are some 50,000 companies in Russia that are controlled by organized crime groups and that these groups control 40% of Russia's gross national product. While the multi-million dollar "white collar" crimes have attracted the most media attention, violence continues to be a significant control agent of the Mafia. Enforcement of contracts, elimination of competition, and making examples of those who oppose the Mafia's power all produce violence in some capacity. While the Russian Mafia has produced severe detrimental affects on the economy in Russia, it is currently seen as only the third strongest threat to the economy.
According to a report by Russia's Ministry of Internal Affairs , the number one threat to Russia's economy is corruption within the government. This report placed the total for bribes and other illegal income received by government officials at $100 billion in 1993 and 1994. Prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union, the KGB was a powerful agency within the security/investigation department of the Soviet government. Corrupt officials and corrupt practices were considered synonymous with the KGB. The KGB no longer officially existed after the Soviet Union breakup, but a large portion of its officials found subsequent positions within current Russian government or high-level positions in non-government employment. While employment titles may have changed for these individuals, the corrupt acts in which they engage remain the same. If a country truly wants to end the Mafia and corruption, it would seem necessary that the rallying cry must come from the top down….the president. It is stated that President Yeltsin is selective when it comes to fighting corruption and the Mafia; that corruption is tolerated when beneficial and dealt with when it creates problems for him. People often learn and emulate the actions of those above them, and if corruption is seen occurring at the highest in command there is little to wonder why it exists in all facets of the governmental structure.
Does the Russian Mafia and corruption affect the United States? The answer is a resounding yes. The exporting of products and natural resources is a highly lucrative practice and, therefore, the Russian Mafia and corrupt officials are involved. Direct involvement, whether knowingly or not, commonly occurs when American businessmen and corporations form partnerships with Russian companies. The major corporations, and especially global corporations, in Russia routinely have Russian Mafia ties or corrupt officials within its' ranks. The formation of the relationships between U.S. and Russian businesses enables the Mafia further access to the United States and the rest of the world. The threat of the Russian Mafia is not limited to the business community. As previously noted, the Russian government continues to be besieged with corruption. How does the U.S. government and military officials know when they are dealing with corrupt officials? When information is exchanged between the U.S. and Russia, where did the information come from (is it accurate information) and where will it end up? The feeling that becomes overwhelming when considering the Russian Mafia and governmental corruption is that everything seems tainted.; that there is always a question lingering about the motives involved in any action.
In summary, what does the future hold for a country where criminal organizations and corrupt government officials occupy the highest levels of the government and control or influence top corporations? In the United States, the public has responded to Mafia crimes by calling for the government to enforce the laws to protect the citizens and country. In Russia, it's obvious that government can not be called upon because they are chief contributors to the Mafia and corruption. As far as laws to protect Russian citizens and country, if they do exist, enforcement of them is selective at best. Over the past 20 years or so, the term "superpower" was often used to describe Russia. Today, this term is still used, but as noted by one top Russian official it is a "superpower of crime." This is a title that does not bode well for the future.
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