A Spanish prosecutor makes headlines by telling an American diplomat that Russia is a “mafia state.” Not a single Russian newspaper, not even those that are chummy with the Kremlin, has failed to use such terminology over the past two decades. Before the fall of the USSR few Russians knew what the mafia was. Now the Sicilian name has entered all the Cyrillic lexicons—and always the core meaning is entanglement of politicians and criminals to cream off the country’s assets by whatever means necessary.
In the old Soviet Union, public theft was possible through a corrupt political system without need for out-and-out hoodlums. Private dachas were constructed at public expense. Factory profits were siphoned off into the bank accounts of the nomenklatura. Elderly party bigwigs took their pick of foreign merchandise in special shops banned to ordinary citizens.
De-communization changed all that. Privatization led to a vicious scramble for the country’s abundant natural resources, and strikingly imaginative schemes were dreamed up by the “new Russians.” Some of them—the oligarchs—became billionaires, and they made themselves useful to President Yeltsin at times of economic crisis and in election campaigns. In return they exacted a price. Yeltsin had to promise to make it possible for them to lay their hands on ever-larger quantities of resources. The greedy competition fostered enmities. Many oligarchs, having fought their way up to wealth and fame, were keen to keep their money by illegal and violent methods.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, left, and President Dmitry Medvedev pilot a golf cart at the Bocharov Ruchei, the presidential summer residence on the Black Sea. Medvedev’s golden retriever, Aldo, accompanies them.
When Vladimir Putin came to power he acquired the image of a ruler who would cleanse the filthy stables. He stood for order. He denounced corruption and privilege. And although he never turned the clock back on the privatization program, he arrested or intimidated those oligarchs who failed to acknowledge his primacy. Mikhail Khodorkovsky objected. He is now in prison in eastern Siberia. Boris Berezovsky wailed and criticized before fleeing to political asylum in London.
To the fore came men like Putin. He drew on ex-comrades from the KGB. He praised them for their patriotism, honesty, and dynamism. All too quickly the assets seized from the dissident oligarchs ended up in the pockets of the newcomers from the security and defense establishment. Everybody in Russia knows this. It was certainly no secret from Putin during two presidential terms when he called repeatedly for the installation of the rule of law. His protégé and successor, Dmitry Medvedev, has been even more expansive about the need for reform and legality.
Both men appreciate something, in theory: if Russia is to have a competitive future in the world alongside its Chinese neighbor, it has to build a framework where thrusting entrepreneurs can drive home from the office without fear of a hail of bullets. And Putin and Medvedev know that introducing an enforceable system of business contract legislation will enhance foreign investment.
The problem is that Putin and Medvedev—Mr. Alpha Dog and his poodle—are products and beneficiaries of a thuggish regime. They themselves are thugs. Alpha Dog growls while the poodle simpers, but each has a sharp bite. They are like eighteenth-century monarchs contemplating a set of reforms. If they go too far too fast, an aristocratic clique may well remove them in a coup. In today’s Russia the current badge of nobility is the old KGB identity paper. Putin and Medvedev are jailers of the regime but they are also its inmates.
Much that happens in Moscow is their responsibility and they deserve the opprobrium heaped upon them by the plain-speaking Spanish prosecutor. But how much faith should be placed in the U.S. ambassador’s contention that Putin knew about the operation to assassinate Alexander Litvinenko in London? This is much less credible. Putin is the big man at the center of a system in which many operate—and diplomatic cables (released by WikiLeaks) that caricature the internal reality of Russian politics fall short of penetrating analysis.
The man from Spain said nothing unusual in itself. More remarkable is that such remarks at last surfaced in the public domain. Putin has been quick to claim that there is a plot against Russia. There is indeed a plot against Russia. It is one he knows a lot about from the inside.