WikiLeaks X: Russia — From Tyranny to Kleptocracy

Medvedev toasts PutinWe’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the tenth in the series.

(Pictured, President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin raise a toast.)

When the late Charles Tilly suggested that “war making and state making—quintessential protection rackets with the advantage of legitimacy—represents our largest examples of organized crime,†he was understating the case. At least that’s what seems to be the case if the recent WikiLeaks documents from the US Embassy in Moscow are accurate. They paint a grim picture of the quintessential mafia state being run out of the Kremlin’s bowels and the hopeless politics it engenders. Nevertheless, they offer an insightful anatomy of how crime operates in post-Soviet Russia under the rule of Vladimir “Batman†Putin and his sidekick Dmitry “Robin†Medvedev.

Writing earlier this year, US ambassador John Beyrle had this to say about the ways in which crime had hollowed out the Russian state:

The Moscow city government’s direct links to criminality have led some to call it “dysfunctional,” and to assert that the government operates more as a kleptocracy than a government. Criminal elements enjoy a “krysha” (a term from the criminal/mafia world literally meaning “roof” or protection) that runs through the police, the Federal Security Service (FSB), Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), and the prosecutor’s office, as well as throughout the Moscow city government bureaucracy. Analysts identify a three-tiered structure in Moscow’s criminal world. [Moscow mayor Yuriy] Luzhkov is at the top. The FSB, MVD, and militia are at the second level. Finally, ordinary criminals and corrupt inspectors are at the lowest level. This is an inefficient system in which criminal groups fill a void in some areas because the city is not providing some services.

XXXXXXXXXXXX told us that Moscow’s ethnic criminal groups do business and give paybacks. It is the federal headquarters of the parties, not the criminal groups, who decide who will participate in politics. XXXXXXXXXXXX argued that the political parties are the ones with the political clout; therefore, they have some power over these criminal groups.

Crime groups work with municipal bureaucrats, but at a low level. For example, the Armenians and Georgians were formerly heavily involved in the gambling business before city officials closed the gambling facilities. These ethnic groups needed protection from law enforcement crackdowns, so they sought cooperation with the municipal bureaucrats. In such scenarios, crime groups paid the Moscow police for protection.

If all this isn’t depressing enough, it only gets worse from there:

XXXXXXXXXXXX told us everyone knows that Russia’s laws do not work. The Moscow system is based on officials making money. The government bureaucrats, FSB, MVD, police, and prosecutor’s offices all accept bribes. XXXXXXXXXXXX stated that everything depends on the Kremlin and he thought that Luzhkov, as well as many mayors and governors, pay off key insiders in the Kremlin. XXXXXXXXXXXX argued that the vertical works because people are paying bribes all the way to the top. He told us that people often witness officials going into the Kremlin with large suitcases and bodyguards, and he speculated that the suitcases are full of money. The governors collect money based on bribes, almost resembling a tax system, throughout their regions. XXXXXXXXXXXX described how there are parallel structures in the regions in which people are able to pay their leaders. For instance, the FSB, MVD, and militia all have distinct money collection systems. Further, XXXXXXXXXXXX told us that deputies generally have to buy their seats in the government. They need money to get to the top, but once they are there, their positions become quite lucrative money making opportunities. Bureaucrats in Moscow are notorious for doing all kinds of illegal business to get extra money.

According to XXXXXXXXXXXX, Luzhkov is following orders from the Kremlin to not go after Moscow’s criminal groups. For example, XXXXXXXXXXXX argued that it was only a public relations stunt from Putin to close gambling. XXXXXXXXXXXX said he did not see the sense in suitcases of money going into the Kremlin since it would be easier to open a secret account in Cyprus. He speculated that the Moscow police heads have a secret war chest of money. XXXXXXXXXXXX said that this money is likely used to solve problems that the Kremlin decides, such as rigging elections. It can be accessed as a resource for when orders come from above, for example, for bribes or to pay off people when necessary.

Interestingly, Beyrle closes his cable with the following observations:

Despite Medvedev’s stated anti-corruption campaign, the extent of corruption in Moscow remains pervasive with Mayor Luzhkov at the top of the pyramid. Luzhkov oversees a system in which it appears that almost everyone at every level is involved in some form of corruption or criminal behavior. Putin and Medvedev’s dilemma is deciding when Luzhkov becomes a bigger liability than asset… Ultimately, the tandem will put Luzhkov out to pasture, like it has done with fellow long-term regional leaders like Sverdlovsk oblast governor Edward Rossel and Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaymiyev.

Boy, was he right! Luzhkov was given his walking papers by President Robin at the end of September. Still, if the cables accurately reflect the reality of Russian politics, and the endemic corruption that defines them, then it won’t much matter if Luzhkov is mayor of Moscow, or if it’s someone else. It’s clearly not the men who run the Russian political establishment that are the heart of the problem. It’s the establishment itself.